Great Northern Highway

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August 28th 2009
Published: September 10th 2009
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Broome to Darwin

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Drunk cans of Emu ExportDrunk cans of Emu ExportDrunk cans of Emu Export

Grog of choice for "abos", oh and John and Locky

Travelling with Locky

Locky and I left Broome in a large Toyota four by four, loaded up with 24 cans of Emu Export lager and food for the camping trip ahead. I mention the beer because it’s the beer of choice for the Aboriginals in this part of the world; it's cheap and cheerful but the white folk don’t touch it, either because of the taste or the negative association. But we were drinking it! Not only that but once we got onto the thin two lane road we were a-cruising and when you’re a-cruising that’s with absolutely nothing on the road or in the landscape - you crack open the beers.

Driving in the outback

And those beers helped because it's a harsh, monotonous place out there as Robert Hughes the Aussie art critic suggested in a comparison with America, the difference being that

" the American liberates, while in Australia space was the ultimate prison."

.The Lives of Robert Hughes, The New Yorker, May 12, 1997 Out it here it felt like it; a deadly sun above a glimmering and definitely straight Great Northern Highway with nothing but bush scrub and distant escarpments for distraction. There were no humans for hundreds of miles and perhaps six cars passed us on the way out of Broome. It just so happened that Locky’s i-pod broke and so I plugged my Zune in, avoiding the need for insufferably mediocre Aussie pub rock. This helped pass the prison sentence as did the beer...By the time we set up at the camp-site at Fitzroy's Crossing I’d drunk about 7 or 8 cans of Emu Export - and I was shall we say "pretty loaded". Again, driving at night is a serious hazard, lot of suicidal kangaroos and roaming cattle out there.

Camping it up at Fitzroy’s Crossing

I was to be in my tent and Locky was going to be sleeping in his “swag” - basically a thick sleeping bag with a mini mattress and a little cover for your head. Even though it was a lot bulkier than my tent, it seemed snug, and as long as the dingoes didn't have a go at your head it was fine. Then a Land Rover turned up and parked next to us and I observed how Aussies in the outback interact with each other, an easy-going conversational style, where nothing
Road sign - alcoholo restrictionsRoad sign - alcoholo restrictionsRoad sign - alcoholo restrictions

'Dry' zones of Australia - mainly aboriginal communities
seems to be an effort or affected:

“How ya goin’? Good, mate. Come far? Aww, south, from Alice way. Aww yeh? Yeh, been driving 10 hours across the Tanami Track. Yeh? Pretty tough going…? (Smiling) Yeh, you could say that, mate. Where you fellas come from? Aww, Broome. Etcetera.

I have no doubt that two English men in the same circumstance would have struggled to get around differences in accent, class, social status, type of vehicle, etc.. Anyway, Locky and I soon got started on making dinner, using the gas stove to fry up some chicken with pasta and Italian sauce type deal, impressive for two unfussy blokes on a budget. After we'd eaten, this Aussie neighbour who must have been in his late 40s early 50s came over and sat with us. We spent the next couple of hours drinking his wine and chatting about random stuff. He even brought over a bowl to smoke with us, admitting that he had to keep his dodgy habit secret from his wife.

The next morning we made the short drive to Geike Gorge National Park - a 30-metre-deep gorge created by flood waters of the Fitzroy River which have carved through the limestone at the junction of the Oscar and Geikie Ranges. Along the way we stopped and picked up up a long-haired dour-faced cagey German who was stood by the side of the road looking for a lift to the gorge. When we got to the park, the German quickly escaped and we stood around trying to decide if we really wanted to spend twenty-five dollars on a 45 minute boat cruise that was just another gorge, of which we’d both seen quite a few of recently.

We decided instead to follow a trail into the park, passing yet more Germans who were unimpressed and so we soon turned around. We only spent about an hour there in total before getting back into the Toyota and driving back onto the main highway, this time for a pretty cool destination.

Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater

We left Geike Gorge and drove for about 5 hours at a constant 110 kilometres p/h hour stopping only to make our lunch - sandwiches where we took turns in spreading the butter, chopping the tomatoes, it's called team work! But I was never quite sure if we’d gone over the top: sweet chili sauce, mayonnaise, sandwich relish, tomatoes, lettuce, cheese and ham. Delicious.

Anyway, brief fuel stop at

Halls Creek

and we turned back towards Wolfe Creek and this was where the 4x4 wheeled vehicle came in supremely handy. To reach it we had to drive a 137 km dirt road off the main highway into the outback. Most of the things that could rattle in the car along this red dust corrugated road - did. Huge plumes of red dust came up with every passing car and I really felt as if I was in the back of beyond. When we finally reached the the crater we pretty much had it to ourselves: there was only 4 guys who were returning from the top of it.

But first, let me explain: Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater is an 850 meter wide and 50 meter deep meteorite crater, believed to have hit the earth over a million years ago and clearly well worth seeing!

We immediately climbed to the top of its rim, being careful up the difficult path with our beers in hand. Then from the edge of the crater we looked out and watched the sun go down over the barren and flat landscape. Not a bad day to end a day’s driving.

Of course when we got back down from the lip of the crater, we had a flat tyre. Fortunately for both of us Locky is the kind of fella who knows his way around a motor vehicle, whereas I do not. No worries mate! I tried to be useful by pointing a spot light and he soon got the old wheel off and a new one on.

Anyway, we camped up that night, getting a fire going, Locky sat on his rolled up SWAG and me on the Esky eating the rest of the left-over pasta and chicken. We did classic camp fire activities that of drinking beer and talking about the women we had loved and lost. Incredibly, we also stood around the fire talking about the books we had read and loved.

The next morning we packed up and returned to the crater and actually climbed down into it's centre where we stood about imagining the cataclysmic impact that took place here a million years ago. You beaut!

Halls Creek

We drove back along the 137 km dirt road (The Tanami Road) passing many road-kill kangaroos in various stages of decay. We also stopped by a pair of 4x4s which had stopped by the side of the track; two families who had camped at the crater that night and now had a flat tyre. Two hours on the Great Northern Highway and we reached Halls Creek again.

We did some food shopping in a crappy supermarket which by the empty spaces on the shelves resembled that of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. We’d also managed to drink all of our beer up in two days but we couldn’t find a “bottle shop” which was open. So, we drove to the local garage to get the old tyre fixed where we again bumped into the same family convoy also getting a repair. They told us that they were travelling around Australia with their families for 10 months - which to me sounded like an unusual thing to do with a young family but the dad said, “Why, not, eh?” Indeed, why not? I’m sure they would be seeing and learning a lot of things, certainly more than their peers.

This same guy had been to Halls Creek some years back and described it as, “worse than a shit hole” but was surprised how much it had changed (since the opening of diamond mines apparently). We followed his suggestion of camping at a “nice spot” by the name of Sawpit Gorge, about an hour away from Halls Creek. Along the windy, dusty road this place was harsh country, dry arid hills and an intense burning sun. Amazingly, there use to be a mining community here and a tiny cemetery that was full of grave stones of miners killed in mining accidents or from things like “thirst”. Harsh, like I said. We then went for a refreshing dip in a gorgeous pool of water at a place called Palm Springs, where the fish weren’t shy either. We picked up some fire wood along the way too, Locky getting his industry strength gloves on and rooting around the bush off the road for dead branches.

We eventually got to our “nice spot” at Sawpit Gorge, using our four wheel drive to get down by the river under the shade of the eucalyptus trees. We again made our terrific sandwiches, but this time we were joined by the most
Locky doing a man's jobLocky doing a man's jobLocky doing a man's job

...collecting firewood
irritating things on the planet. Flies. Yeh, these bastards just won’t leave you alone, as soon as you give them the “Aussie wave” they return again and again, impervious to your attempts to swat them and yourself in the face. These bastards go up your nose and into your ears and eyes and quite literally shit onto you.

Anyway, we soon got a fire going and chilled out for a bit; reading our books in the shade, before I soon got fed up with the flies and retreated to the car. A middle aged couple from Melbourne had camped above us in the gorge and invited us for a drink. Free wine and conversation (building eco-houses on the coast, aggressive dingoes and kangaroos in national parks, suffering petty anti-Victorian sentiments from outback locals) we even got a free meal out of it, after they kindly offered to let us stay and have some of their dinner that they’d made.

I pitched my tent more carefully that night; Locky had told me that in one week two people had been killed by falling branches from the Eucalyptus tree, they have a habit of just inconsiderately snapping off and falling onto the poor unfortunate soul beneath them. New lesson: Australia is dangerous, nearly always.

Bungle Bungle

In the morning we made our usual coffee on the gas stove and once again we hit the road. Despite it being in the deepest darkest months of winter, the day was blue skies and hot - the benefit of being in tropical northern Australia. We made lunch at a desolate rest stop off the main highway and drove and drove eventually hitting the turn-off for Purnululu National Park and yet another dirt road.(More commonly known as the Bungle Bungles but more correctly Bungle Bungle, singular. Bungles is acceptable but Bungle Bungles - never) This time Locky wasn’t taking any chances and decided to take his tyres down for the bumpy corrugated road ahead.

Let me quickly explain the term corrugated road, because I’d never come across it before, being a mere cyclist back home. Corrugated roads have sheets of corrugated iron under the surface which if you slow down enough makes the car rattle, so you have to maintain a certain speed to enjoy the benefits of it. This one was the windiest, dustiest, hilliest and bumpiest road I’ve ever been on and it took two long hours on it before we reached the Bungle Bungle national park entrance.

We arrived at about 3pm and were given the choice of two campsites in the 3,000 km sq park - not much of a choice - plus there was only toilet and fresh water facilities. So we would be roughing it for a fair bit, what being in the outback is all about. An amazing fact about Purnululu is that it was only really “discovered” in the mid 1980s, Australia is so huge that huge parts of it haven’t even been formally mapped. But very quickly it was given national park status and then a UNESCO World Heritage designation. This place is pretty unique in terms of having both ‘Superlative natural phenomena and areas of exceptional beauty and aesthetic importance".

We parked up and got some more reading in - myself riveted by the story of transported convicts to this land as told by Robert Hughes’ excellent book, Fatal Shore and in which I never failingly read out snippets to Locky. Unfortunately, Locky is from Kangaroo Island, in South Australia a state he proudly boasted has never had convict labour transported to them.

Anyway, even though the sun is a-burning-bright all day long, darkness comes arrives quickly in the Winter, someone said that the end day light is like a “slam-dunk”. So we soon went walk-about, climbing up a spinifex grass-filled outcrop behind our camp-site and getting a sunset great view of the Bungle Bungle ranges, its red rock turning a beautiful deep sunset red.

It turned freezing cold when it got dark and so we cooked our dinner on the gas stove with our jackets and hats on and the bright southern stars above. We weren’t allowed to start our own fires so we took out dinners over to the communal fire where we got talking to two old fellas from Melbourne way, grumpy working class buggers. When they found out where I was from they went quiet (we were bashing the Aussies in the Fourth Test by that time). so the talk ended up on Victoria obsessed Aussie Rules Football.

Mini Palms Gorge

The following day we drove a couple of kilometres to Mini Palms Gorge, a boulder strewn gorge filled with Livistona Palms. We had to squeeze between and clamber over the boulders before reaching the viewing platform overlooking a palm filled valley surrounded by 150m high cliffs. At the end of the valley was a cave, tempting to look at but the climb to get down has been closed to protect the mini palms that cover the floor. (The footprints are proof that many people ignore the signs...) But we didn't go down as Locky said it was also a sacred place to the local aboriginal tribes. I was quite surprised at how respectful many Australians are of aboriginal traditions.

We then went to the Echidna Chasm, an amazingly tight and atmospheric place caused by millions of years of water gushing through it. Even today, during the wet season they fill up with raging flood waters. Following that we stood on Walanginjdji Sunset Lookout which had a superb view overlooking the entire valley. This was the real Australia that I was seeing, ancient, massive and utterly unique.

Picanninny Creek

The next day we visited Picanninny Creek, the site of the world-famous beehive structures that the Bungle Bungle is famous for. Their unique striped colour is caused by sandstones and conglomerates (rocks composed mainly of pebbles and boulders and cemented together by finer material) and this combined with the effects of wind from the Tanami Desert and rainfall over millions of years has shaped the domes. An utterly bizarre landscape.

We then went into Cathedral Gorge and had it to ourselves, an amazing cathedral like place - and near impossible to get a photo that captured its size and magnitude. It was a great way to end the day and our visit to Purnululu National Park.

The following day we drove back along the dirt road for a couple of hours and got back onto the main highway pumping up the tyres to normal psi.


We then drove to a place called Kununurra where we stayed in a youth hostel that night and got a few beers in from the bottle shop. There were quite a few backpackers just sitting around boozing who seemed to be marooned in the town. Staying at the hostel, working in crappy jobs in cafes and bars and just being bored of an evening. That’s where the drinking came in, large amounts of boozing because there was nothing else to do. A bit of a depressing place to be honest.

The next morning we went to the local tourist info place where they had wireless internet, so I got on and low and behold one of those nefarious things on the internet had happened. Typical, I’m out of mobile phone range and internet access and somebody spends over a grand on my credit card. Luckily it was done recently and the credit card company had suspended it already. Moreover I am not liable to pay for anything.

Then we went to a local café, served by a German girl who I recognized from the hostel. As we sat there drinking out coffees, a girl came in who recognized Locky. Apparently they knew each from when they worked in.... Canada. They hadn't seen each other since and just randomly bumped into each other in Kununurra's sole coffee shop. Coincidence huh? Anyway, we all agreed to meet up with them in Darwin the following day (if we got there in time).

We then got back on the road and headed north bound hitting the Northern Territory or as they call it here, the “Top End”.

Additional photos below
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10th September 2009

Wow, looks like a pretty good trip ! I am struggling in The Netherlands for a job, ignoring the bills. What a differance ! I am booking this week for Australia. Aiming for the east coast half januari. Greets, AJ
11th September 2009

It's tough here too AJ, I've been in Brisbane two weeks and trying not to get's hard finding work! Well done on booking a ticket!

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