Northern Australia 2002, Part 3: Borroloola to Darwin

A map of the trip route is here.

Previous installment: Part 2, Karumba to Borroloola. Part 1 (Airlie Beach to Karumba), Part 4 (Kakadu and Nitmiluk), Part 5 (Katherine and home). Click on a photo to see it full size. Photo album is here.

Note: Some things have changed since we took this trip, so some statements are out of date. We’ve updated many of the links to other information sources, but we haven’t (yet) attempted to add notes on all the other changes.


In the previous episode, we had reached Borroloola in the Northern Territory. Now we continue from there to Darwin via the Carpentaria and Stuart Highways.

Friday 12 July 2002.
On the second night at Borroloola, after filling our front fuel tank, we could smell diesel. At first we assumed this was coming from the fuel overflow tube, but in the cold light of morning we could clearly see that diesel really was leaking from the fuel tank, albeit slowly. That worried us, as the nearest place to get repairs done is Katherine, over 600 km away.

We set off around 9 am, this time on good bitumen road for the first time in many days.

"Lost City" columns at Caranbirini Nature ParkWe stopped at Caranbirini Nature Park, about 45 km up the road, to take a walk through and past the spectacular “Lost City” style columns, with their multicoloured rocks. That was a wonderful spot, highly recommended for a visit and a walk through.

Continuing on to Cape Crawford, we had lunch at Heartbreak Hotel, subject of several bush poems. We didn’t take the light helicopter flight over their Lost City area, one of several in this part of the Northern Territory.

We saw very little wildlife apart from a few kites, although the vegetation continued to change as we gained altitude. After a long, boring 270 km drive, we reached the HiWay Inn near Daly Waters (16-18.440S 133-23.160E), where the Carpentaria Highway meets the Stuart Highway.

When we arrived, we found that the fuel leak was much, much slower. We decided the damage is about 1/3rd of the way up the side of the tank, so when the fuel level drops lower, the leak should stop. (It did.)

The HiWay Inn area was a hive of activity, with the new owners of five weeks past making a determined effort to fix multiple outstanding problems, and put in a whole heap of new infrastructure. Eric talked with them about their plans, which sounded really good. Even in the short time they had been there, they had a bunch of the truck drivers stopping, which is always a good sign. Fuel was also reasonable for this part of the country, at $1.09 a litre, the same as at Borroloola.

The food was very good, and served in huge portions. In addition to a better range of beer than is usual in roadhouses, they had quite a respectable wine list.

Saturday 13 July 2002.
Leaving the HiWay Inn, we went into Daly Waters. The pub there indeed looked historic. We visited one of the WWII military airfields, bleak and long abandoned. Out here, even the hanger hadn’t rusted away in a half century. This remote spot has the curious distinction of being our first international airport, and the hanger belonged to Qantas.

We passed several WWII airfields on the way north to Larrimah, all carefully labelled with their historical names. We stopped briefly at Larrimah to get something to drink. The place looked a little run down, but was also showing a “new owners” sign. The pub had been a WWII officers’ mess.

At Mataranka Homestead tourist resort (14-56.422S 133-08.077E) we booked in for two days, and ended up staying a week. The place was very popular, with virtually every site full by evening most days.

Sunday-Saturday 14-20 July 2002.
Thermal pool at Mataranka HomesteadFlood levels marked on wall of pub, Mataranka HomesteadThe main attraction at Mataranka is the thermal pool in the Elsey National Park, only a 100 metre stroll away. The pool was pretty and pleasant, although the water was heated only by virtue of coming from a short distance underground. It wasn’t steam hot, like some of the artesian bores we have encountered. The pool itself was constructed during WWII by soldiers for use by the officers. Underwater, you can clearly see the old thick military corrugated iron sides of the pond, and the way the bottom has been levelled and concrete steps and surrounds formed. One of the military people took it over after the war as a tourist resort, and it has been popular ever since.

Every few years the river floods sufficiently during the Wet that the resort is inundated. A sign in the main bar, up close to the ceiling, points to the high water mark for the floods on Australia Day 1998; another sign indicates the high water mark earlier in 2002. Measuring sticks outside show the 4 to 6 metre flood levels. Each time, they have to take everything portable up to the airfield (the highest spot around) until the water retreats. One of the ablution blocks was swept away from its foundation in this year’s flood, and has not yet been replaced.

Stevie's Hole, Elsey National ParkCampground at Mataranka HomesteadMataranka Homestead had a handy store with a limited range of items, including milk, orange juice, and bread; a snack bar, a bistro restaurant, and (of course) a bar. Evening entertainment was usually a music duo playing popular and country and western songs six nights a week. They were pretty good, and many of their selections were from the 50s and 60s, presumably catering for the tastes of the audience, many of whom were over 50.

We were delighted to discover that Jean’s CDMA phone worked, so she was able to collect and send e-mail. Just as well, as one of her clients chose that time to send her an urgent job, which involved downloading a large file.

When Jean wasn’t working, we walked to Stevie’s Hole, a kilometre or so along the river. This swimming hole in the Elsey National Park was named for a former tourist operator who took tour groups to it. We returned via Rainbow Spring, a small hole where you could see the water visibly bubbling out of the rocks and up through the crystal clear pool. The bottom of the spring is below the general water table, so water bubbles up from tens of metres down, heated by being from below the earth.

Other things to do include hiring a canoe and paddling along parts of the Waterhouse River, or driving to some other spots to walk along the river or swim in the waterholes or view the falls — no crocodiles in this area.

Original Elsey Homestead, MatarankaAboriginal shelters, "gunyas" or "wurlies"We inspected the replica of the original Elsey Homestead and aboriginal shelters, which had been made for the film version of Jeannie Gunn’s sentimental early 20th Century children’s classic We of the Never Never about life in Elsey Station. The homestead’s grooved uprights and dropped plank cypress pine construction were effective if you lack many nails. Displays of old photographs showed how the cattle business was run at the turn of the 19th Century.

The Aboriginal bush shelters, known variously as gunyas or wurlies, were made of saplings and paperbark under the advice of local Yangman and Mangari tribal elders.

Sunday 21 July 2002.
Cutta Cutta cavesAfter an early departure from Mataranka, we stopped at Cutta Cutta caves about 90 km north. These tropical limestone caves were wonderful. An easy path through them, excellent lighting showing their features, an informative guide.

The heat of the day was getting more oppressive as we continued north. We reached Katherine (14-28.053S 132-15.935E) around lunch time and walked through the main street looking for a place to eat. As it was Sunday, not much was open. We picked up some stuff in Woolworth’s (a big store with a good selection; many tourists were stocking up). We were able to buy a newspaper for the first time in two weeks!

Continuing north, we noticed that the colour of the vegetation changed dramatically from the usual grey-green of the drier parts of the country into several shades of bright green. We considered stopping in Pine Creek, where a paved road turns off to the Kakadu National Park, but decided to continue on so we would be closer to Darwin in the morning. We were concerned that we might have trouble finding a place to stay in Darwin, as the Royal Darwin Show is on later in the week and the caravan parks won’t take bookings. (Turned out we were right to be concerned.)

Charlie, the water buffalo from the Crocodile Dundee filmsWe finally stopped just before 5 pm in Adelaide River (13-14.319S 131-06.452E), and stayed in a small, unimpressive (but acceptable) caravan park at the Adelaide River Inn. While Jean had CDMA phone contact from about Katherine, Eric still didn’t have GSM contact. We had a nice roast lamb dinner for $12 each at the Inn, and the beer was a pretty good price also.

One feature of the pub was a dead film star, stuffed and occupying a lot of the bar. In fact, it was the largest film star ever in the Northern Territory. This was Charlie, the water buffalo that had a scene in the first two Crocodile Dundee movies.

Monday 22 July 2002.
Adelaide River WWII war cemeteryWe visited the Adelaide River WWII war cemetery, which is one of the larger Australian ones. It was very well laid out and maintained. The town was a major military installation and hospital after the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942.

Driving north, we passed many stretches of crumbling bitumen paralleling the road: WWII airstrips. Also visible beside the road in many places was the construction work being done on the new Alice Springs to Darwin railway, a project talked about for decades and finally started a year or so ago.

Coming into Darwin, we found Western Diesel NT (the Hino specialists where we’d be taking the truck in for repairs on Tuesday) and booked into an “executive chalet” cabin at the BP Palms Village Resort (12-27.434S 130-58.257E), within walking distance south along the Stuart Highway. It was the last available room with ensuite and telephone, although we could have had a cheaper cabin without either. As far as we could tell, the caravan park was almost completely full, and the few remaining spots (which filled up later in the day) were too small for our truck anyway.

Food services included a bistro and restaurant (the latter indoors, air conditioned, and requiring customers to wear enclosed shoes), plus the BP garage fast food service. Anything else required a drive (or bus ride) somewhere; the closest place was Palmerston, about 5 minutes away by car. Palmerston has a good-sized, though very spread out, shopping centre.

The Palms resort is huge, with a vast collection of campsites and cabins, and a few motel rooms. The food at the bistro was good, but expensive (though no more so than we found elsewhere in Darwin, a generally expensive city). The bus stop was just outside the entrance, but to go into the city you had to dash across the busy Stuart Highway, not an easy task for those who don’t walk well.

Tuesday-Monday 23-30 July 2002.
We delivered the truck to Western Diesel, where it remained for a week while parts were ordered and work was done. The mechanics there had seen many of its problems before and proclaimed that fixing them would be no problem. (Just expensive!)

We could have had the truck back for part of the time, but as the caravan park was full, we really didn’t have any place to park it, and we weren’t going to try to drive it around Darwin. Except for the extra expense, staying in the cabin was quite a pleasant break.

We rode the buses around Darwin and did a bit of touristing most days. The Tourist Information Centre had bus maps as well as timetables, and you could buy a $5 day pass or a $25 weekly pass if you expected to ride on public transport a lot. Several tour options were also available, including a get-on-and-off-as-often-as-you-like bus that went to the main tourist sites, some of which were a bit of a walk from the public bus routes.

Jean was presenting some editing workshops in the evenings and on the weekend at the NT Writers’ Centre, so that kept her busy much of the time. One evening we were invited to dinner at the Darwin Sailing Club, where we got to see the sun sink into the Arafura sea.

Another day, we visited the NT Museum and Art Gallery, which had a variety of interesting exhibits, including a collection of boats from dugout canoes and outriggers to Indonesian fishing vessels (impounded from people illegally fishing in Australian waters) and one of the boats that had brought refugees from Vietnam in the mid-1970s. Other exhibits included several styles of Aboriginal art, other arts and crafts, natural history, and Darwin before, during and after the devastating Cyclone Tracy on Christmas 1974.

The Cyclone Tracy exhibit included the original TV footage and reporting seen by many Australians a few days after the disaster. Jean was particularly impressed with the small dark room you stood in and listened to the sounds of cyclonic winds and things blowing around. Darwin was almost completely destroyed by Cyclone Tracy, and most of the 40,000 residents were evacuated. (Jean remembers meeting some evacuees in Townsville, where she was living at the time.) Now Darwin has reached 110,000 people, and is growing faster than almost any other city in Australia. (And their building codes are much more strict!)

One interesting discovery was the Didjworld Internet shop, in Harry Chan arcade on Smith Street, http://www.didjworld.com/. They were set up to allow access to their phone and ethernet from your own laptop machine, in addition to being able to use their machines. Just what travellers like us need. We’ve heard that other Internet cafes have this facility, but so far we haven’t seen another one; probably if we spent more time in larger centres, we’d find them.

We also visited some of the old WWII oil storage tunnels. These were partly restored in 1992 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin. The 5 metre tall tunnels, 70 or more metres long, are buried way under the cliffs on which the town stands. The tunnels were capable of holding millions of litres of fuel. They were an interesting example of the work done for the war effort. The entrance was narrow, not revealing the massive interior until you were 20 or so metres inside.

As you might expect, many other WWII memorabilia are scattered around the Darwin area. Jean had visited some of them when she was there with her parents in 1990. Darwin was the only city to be bombed by the Japanese, but other parts of northern Australia (including Cape York) also have the remnants of airstrips and other relics from the war effort.

Overall, we enjoyed Darwin, despite the warm weather (highs of around 32 C most days); in the shade, the breeze cooled us down nicely, and the humidity was not too high. The locals said that the week before we arrived, the temperatures and humidity were much lower. Just our luck to bring a heat wave with us!

Next installment: Kakadu and Nitmiluk National Parks, Northern Territory.

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For more information about Darwin, see http://www.darwin.nt.gov.au/darwin.html and Darwin public bus information.

Two good sites for more information about other places mentioned in this newsletter are Travelmate and Walkabout.