Northern Australia trip 2002, Part 5: Katherine and home

A map of the trip route is here.

Previous installment: Kakadu and Nitmiluk. Part 1 (Airlie Beach to Karumba), Part 2 (Karumba to Borroloola), Part 3 (Borroloola to Darwin), Part 4 (Kakadu and Nitmiluk).

Note: Some things have changed since we took this trip, so some statements are out of date.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 our previous episode, we visited Kakadu and Nitmiluk National Parks and arrived in Katherine to get more repairs done to the truck.

Wednesday – Friday, 7-9 August 2002.
While waiting at the repair place in Katherine (RJ Motors), we talked with another customer, Phil, who wanted to buy just the truck, not the motorhome parts, for his business. We later learned he took Hino 4WD trucks out in Arnhem Land over country you wouldn’t walk, to collect water buffalo. Someone had stolen his truck (the same model as ours), over-revved the engine, and destroyed it. We looked at the resulting mess and sympathised.

It was now late in the afternoon, and when Jean phoned around she discovered that many of the caravan parks were already full. We ended up at Springvale Homestead Caravan Park (14-30.011S 132-13.796E), a very pleasant place but nowhere near anything else in town. Here we stayed for two days, waiting for the repair place to find time to fix the truck. We inspected the original homestead, the oldest in the Northern Territory.

A feature of the park was the mob of little wallabies that thumped around outside and under the motorhome through the evening and early hours of the night. Every time you went outside, a handful would be visible in the torchlight. There appeared to be at least two different species.

Although Katherine has several places of interest, we didn’t have the ambition to drive into town and walk around, and the days were quite warm (34 C). We agreed that if we hadn’t been living in the tropics for the past several years, we would be finding the weather a lot more oppressive, but we still weren’t enthusiastic about doing any exercise in the heat.

Late on Friday the garage installed the new (much sturdier) brackets and reconnected the rear fuel tank, so we were ready to depart on Saturday morning. The owner remarked that the Year of the Outback had brought them entirely too much business from an unusually large number of tourists.

By now we had decided not to continue the trip to the west coast. Between Jean’s knee (which was getting worse rather than better, to her considerable annoyance) and the hassles with the truck, we were no longer enjoying the trip. It was apparent that none of our problems would have been a big deal for anyone who knows enough about trucks, but we don’t know anything about them and aren’t interested in learning. We had been planning to sell it when we got back anyway, because we don’t use it enough to justify keeping it.

Saturday 10 August 2002.
We left Katherine and headed south along the Stuart Highway. It’s a boring drive. Jean decided she now prefers boring. It means that nothing new has broken.

At Mataranka, we looked briefly at the giant concrete termite mound and admired the sculptures of the characters from the book, We of the Never Never: the Gunns, Aboriginal stockman, Chinese cook, and the Little Black Princess.

At the Mobil service station, we discovered Kelly’s home made pies, the best we’ve had in Australia. Gigantic, full of meat, and flavoursome. We had been expecting the usual snack-sized pies, but got a huge meal. We won’t need much for dinner.

At the Carpentaria Highway turnoff, we stayed again at the HiWay Inn, where we saw some people we’d met earlier on the trip and admired the progress the renovators had made since our last visit, only weeks before.

Sunday 11 August 2002.
We got away early, drove through the small communities of Dunmarra and Elliott, and had lunch at Renner Springs. There was a bunch of army vehicles camped there, and we had seen many army transporters going the other way along the highway. We assumed they were on manoeuvers, which often take place in northern Australia.

We stayed the night at Threeways (19-26.188S 134-12.545E), about 30 km north of Tennant Creek, at the Barkly Highway turnoff to the east. This was the noisiest caravan park we’ve ever encountered, with a loud generator running all night.

Monday 12 August 2002.
Jean tried to call her mother, but the only telephone wouldn’t accept coins or anything else; it showed a message “Emergency calls only”. No mobile phone service. We debated going on to Tennant Creek to find a weekend newspaper and a working phone, but it was just enough out of our way that we couldn’t be bothered.

Heading east along the Barkly Highway, we learned first-hand why travellers are encouraged to go east-to-west across the top of Australia, at least at this time of year. The wind was against us the whole way, and at times it was very strong, assisted by the flat countryside. At times the gusts were so strong that our large mirrors were blown out of line, toward the truck. We had to stop several times to adjust them. Fortunately the number of road trains was far less than on the Stuart Highway.

We stayed at Barkly Homestead (19-42.708S 135-49.643E) over night. This was a fairly pleasant place, and the only road house between Threeways and Camooweal. Unfortunately, the only phone wasn’t touch-tone, so Jean couldn’t use her cheap calling card to call her mother, and of course the mobile phone didn’t work. However, their Barkly burgers were very nice, and so was the glass of Wolf Blass Cab Shiraz red label we washed them down with.

Tuesday 13 August 2002.

There was nothing except rest areas listed between Barkly Homestead and Camooweal, so we collected some sandwiches to take with us. The road remained not too bad until just after the Queensland border. We had been warned by people we’d met travelling the other way that the Queensland road was a real shocker, and they were right. However, road crews were working on the road and a new high-level bridge on the western side of the town of Camooweal (19-55.319S 138-07.145E).

We stayed overnight at Camooweal, choosing a caravan park attached to the Post Office Hotel, well away from the road construction and the pub where the road workers were staying.

We didn’t go to the Camooweal Caves National Park, 8 km south of the town. Camping is permitted but the caves are for experienced and well-equipped cavers only, and only in the dry seas (the caves fill with water in the Wet). Contact the Mount Isa office of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service before going caving. (07) 4743 2055. http://www.walkabout.com.au/locations/QLDCamooweal.shtml or http://www.env.qld.gov.au/ for more information.

Wednesday 14 August 2002.
The road between Camooweal and Mount Isa was very rough. It was built during WWII with American funds as a link from southern states to the “front line”

in the Northern Territory. It’s being upgraded or bypassed, but a piece is being preserved (with an informative historical marker) to show what the road used to be like. The original road was wider than the usual single-lane bitumen road in this part of the country, but not quite wide enough to be two lanes. It follows the natural undulating contours of the land, with added corrugations. Corrugated bitumen is really ghastly to drive on!

We refueled at Mount Isa and then went looking for food. Eric had difficulty finding a place to park the truck near the main shopping area, so we ended up in a part of town with almost no choice of eateries. We eventually found a pub, which had good steak sandwiches, but that made a heavier meal than we had wanted.

We had originally intended to do some sightseeing in Mount Isa, as the area has some interesting stuff, including the Riversleigh Centre, all about the dinosaur fossils at Riversleigh (on the way to Lawn Hill National Park), and of course a tour of the mine. But we were tired of touring, so we went on our way. The road improved east of Mount Isa and went through some more interesting countryside with hilly features — though after the flat plains of the Barkly Highway in the Northern Territory, almost any topographical change was interesting.

We stayed the night at Cloncurry (20-42.961S 139-59.775E), where the caravan park was an inconvenient walking distance from town, and didn’t have a food service. Cloncurry also has some interesting sights, but we’d been there before.

Thursday 15 August 2002.
We made a long, tiring run, stopping at rest areas, but not much else. Lunch at Richmond (20-44.048S 143-08.348E), bypassed Hughenden, and reached Torrens Creek around 5 pm. We had stayed there before, and knew we would enjoy the huge Yowie burger we got from Les and Denise at the caravan park.

Friday 16 August 2002.
We reached Townsville just after lunch and checked into the caravan park we’d stayed in on the trip out. This time, with no major event like Show Week in town, there was plenty of room at the park. We ate dinner at the Banjo Patterson steakhouse.

Saturday 17 August 2002.
Drove home, in plenty of time to park the truck in its usual spot before the Caravan Camping & Trailer Centre closed for the day. Called a taxi to take us home. Discovered that the person with whom we’d left our car had gone on holidays and locked our car in his garage. Guess we won’t be unloading the truck this weekend!

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For more information about places mentioned

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