We decide on our route beyond Katherine as we are leaving Katherine. As a group, advance planning is clearly our forte. We all have jobs that require immense planning and so we are avoiding it like the plague. But we are at least managing to buy diesel before leaving town.
We plan to stay at Jasper Gorge tonight. As I am the only one that has travelled this way before, the others ask me numerous questions about the route, the history, the camping area. Sadly, my memory is not up to the task so I just give them random lies.
As we leave town, Kaylee is on the phone to Telstra….again. Her second call to Optus reveals that, in fact, despite their previous assurances, her phone was locked to Optus. In order to unlock it we have had to back it up, restore the factory settings and then restore the backed up files. It is good that Australia’s unrivalled communications industry makes things so easy. But the phone still does not work. So it is back to Telstra. Kaylee has had to take four blood pressure tablets just to deal with them.
By the time we lose reception, the problem is still not resolved.
We travel on. A quick stop at the Victoria River roadhouse for ice creams are in order. The country we are travelling through, around the Victoria River and Gregory National Park, has changed to magnificent sandstone escarpment and woodland. Beyond Victoria River we turn left for the Jasper River Gorge. I worked throughout this area in the 1980s, with the local traditional owners (TOs), when Gregory National Park was being established.
Under the Commonwealth Land Rights Act, any land which remained in public ownership and had not been alienated for grazing, mining or national parks, was open for a land claim by the TOs. The NT Government had deliberately attempted to prevent a land claim by alienating the land as a national park. But to finalise the process, legally, it needed to immediately gazette the park at the same moment that they resumed the former grazing lease.
One of the land council lawyers had spotted this and, in the few hours before the NT Government could redress its oversight, had lodged a land claim. As a result the Government had been forced to involve the traditional owners in joint park planning and management in a way they never intended.
The road to Jasper Gorge is where I committed one of my most fundamental crimes against the local Aboriginal people. We were traveling down the road when one of the TOs spotted a large goanna crossing the road. Cries of “Run ‘im down” echoed around the vehicle but I instinctively swerved to avoid it and the goanna shot away into the bush.
This was met with a stream of insults “Ah bloody stupid whitefella…stop, stop..” I braked as hard as I dared and the mob jumped out pursuing the goanna through the bush with a couple of rifles. It had run up a tree and was a gonna. Goanna for dinner. But I was in disgrace for my shameful driving and hunting skills.
At 4 pm we arrive at Jasper Gorge. It is a beautiful deep water hole fringed by Pandanus and bordered by rocky gorges and spinifex hills as far as the eye can see. But you cannot swim due to the risk of crocodiles. The only other negative is that previous visitors apparently thought that there was no requirement to bury toilet paper. The level of laziness and lack of care never ceases to amaze.
There are two other vehicles and it is nearly full moon. We sit around our first camp fire of the trip. Roger and I plan our first album. The fact that neither of us can sing does not deter us. Roger maybe can manage backing vocals but I am not convinced that I can even meet that standard.
Jill finds a cane toad but is not convinced that it is a cane toad. Roger cannot decide whether it is a cane toad or frog despite the fact that it is the size of a large feral cat. He fails to kill it and has no excuses. He is an environmental failure.
In the morning we walk up the ridge. The country is beautiful and we all enjoy the walk except for Kaylee who had decided to walk in sandals and has been brutally attacked by the resident spinifex.
At 10 am we leave for Halls Creek via Top Springs and Kalkarinji. The country flattens out. It is about 700 kms to Halls Creek, mostly on dirt roads, so there is a long drive ahead. The sky is filled with whistling kites which are ubiquitous in the Territory but we also come across two magnificent wedgetails feasting on a dead wallaby.
We pass Victoria River Downs Station, once the world’s largest cattle station. It is still immense and there are seven helicopters parked next to the road ready to do the mustering. We finally arrive at Top Springs in time for lunch. Roger asks about vegetables but is told: “Too far to bring ’em, you can’t keep ’em and nobody buys them”. But we do succeed in buying the world’s worst and most expensive apples. The cost of diesel is up to $2.30 a litre.
We are making good time but will not make Halls Creek today. At 3 pm we arrive at Kalkarinji. This is where Vincent Lingiari led the walk off from Wave Hill station and started the land rights movement. It is immortalised in the song by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’.
We consider staying at the camp ground but Kaylee reports back that it does not look enticing. She states that the camp ground resembles a cross between the local footie oval and ground zero after a nuclear attack, except that the toilets would undoubtedly have been in better condition at ground zero. after After fuelling up we press on.
At four we start looking for camp sites but we are in rocky spinifex country; there are few camp sites that do not require a grader to make them usable. We explore a few side tracks and apart from trespassing on a couple of stations have found nothing useful. Finally at 4.30 we stumble on a road workers old clearing. It is a gem, nicely cleared. The road workers, as is there wont, have found a beautiful spot with views and nicely cleared an excessively large area. The one downside is that it is only one hundred metres from the main road and at 3 am the night’s convoy of road trains rolls through.
If you have never heard empty road trains passing over corrugations, imagine Deep Purple in their 1972 concert. At that concert the urban myth is that three members of the audience were rendered unconscious by the volume. Once you have imaged that level of noise you need to and amplify it somewhat to comprehend the disturance.
Kaylee reported she could not hear me snoring, less than a foot away, for the sound of road trains. Given that she normally complains that she can hear me snoring when she is sleeping with her head beneath four doonas and I am at a distance of a kilometre this is something of a record.
We find we have mobile reception. Kaylee is excited because she has so been looking forward to talking to Telstra….As we watch we know that the stress levels are rising….arms are starting to flap around and attempts to assist her are met with impromptu shooing motions. Two calls later, two rounds explanations and of switching phone on and off there is still no solution to the lack of data. The climax is postponed until Halls Creek which is where we will next have reception. We settle down for dinner which is roast chicken and pasta with warm water laced with a slight nose of dust and a delicate flavour of saline extract.
Sunrise at the Kalkarinji roadworkers clearing is equally beautiful. Sun is rising as the moon is setting. Jill and Kaylee both remain in a semi-comatose state until intravenously fed their first tea. Kaylee calls it her transitional tea and, generally, nothing of world significance happens until it is consumed.
Roger, on the other hand, is engaged in hand to hand combat with Mother Earth. Out here there is no easy way to dig a 15 cm hole for the morning toilet stop. The ideal solution would be either a jackhammer or a small amount of ammoniam nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO) plus a detonator but absent those tools it is a long laborious struggle through rock-hard dirt with a shovel. Just make sure you eat your muesli afterwards.
After tea and muesli disputes (each person eats different muesli and considers the others muesli a disgrace to humankind) we press on. The landscape changes. We have been passing through a magnificent landscape of red and green after one of the biggest wets of recent years all interspersed with giant termite mounds. Now we are passing through a vast expanse of grasslands. All is going well. We crest the rise of a hill and pull off to admire the view. There is a hissing sound and it is not Jill’s normal expression of disapproval in the face of most comments offered by yours truly.
Sadly we regard our rear passenger tyre. It is an ex-tyre due to an unfortunate incident with a nail. But no problems..the bush mechanics are on to it. We pull out the air jack in which we have been extensively trained. For those who have never used one this involves placing a rubber hose over the end of the exhaust and starting the engine. The exhaust gases then fill the jack raising the vehicle. Rumour has it that it is easy to use and much safer than a standard jack but we are determined to prove otherwise.
If you happen to be on a trip with someone you don’t like, get them to hold the hose on the exhaust. Apart from the burn marks on their hands they are likely to be numbed into semi-consciousness for several hours by the exhaust fumes. I am unsure why I was allocated this particular job. But in any case I am a singular failure and after several attempts during which the jack becomes part inflated and the slumps sideways repeatedly like some badly designed dildo, we give up and get out the bog standard scissor jack. With this antiquated machine we change the tyre in minutes. We are elated.