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Sunday, 19 September 2010

Cairns to Katherine

West from Cairns to Katherine

Haven't heard much from Adelaide lately except its cold and raining and the Crows lost to the Power.

We were heading west to Katherine where we had tentatively made plans to meet up with Charles and Fred, our friends from the UK, who were planning a trip to Oz to pick up their caravan from storage in Katherine and continue their travels west. But while we were struggling with the wilds of the cape, they were still wandering the bonnie hills of Scotland or the villages of Sommerset, (not Midsommer,where murders so often seem to happen), but soon they would take a big bird into the sky to Adelaide and start the long drive north.

And we'll have to find somewhere to vote along the way. We actually found that there are lots of pre-election polling stations set up in little towns and communities and most people we spoke to had voted long before election day. We actually voted in a Katherine shopping centre the day before the election. They had voting papers available for every electorate in the country.

Georgetown and Croydon

Setting out west from Mareeba, we retraced our steps along both the unsealed and sealed section of the Savannah Way through Mount Surprise to Geogetown and Croydon.

Croydon was particularly hot, 36º, but it has developed from a small dusty town of Nevil Shute fame to a significant tourist centre.
Interesting seat design, flanked by (male) kangaroos.
It has a brand new information centre-cum-museum, a row of olde streete lampe postes, circa 1895, powered by compact flouro globes, circa 2009, and an old Bank of NSW building which has been tastefully converted into a public toilet. How appropriate.
The NSW Bank is now a public toilet.
Lamp post c 1895, compact flouro c 2009
In the olde police statione, Janet found a set of naked manikins awaiting their place in the museum and couldn't resist patting their bottoms. She also found a policeman whose dress desperately needed adjusting. In the gaol, the last remaining prisoner actually talks at you as you walk past.

Janet checking the sizes...
...and the policeman's dress needed adjusting.
Most importantly, Croydon is the end of the line for the Gulflander railmotor line from Normanton, which we experienced more personally when we reached Normanton. The Normanton railway station is an original heritage building dating from the 1850's. By contrast, the Croydon equivalent is a modern corrugated iron shed without much appeal, but it probably keeps the rain out better.

We camped near the Cumberland Chimney, the remains of a tin mine set up by Cornish miners in the 1800's. There was a large lagoon nearby covered with birdlife.
Croydon Railway Station, keeps out rain but not pretty.
The Cumberland Chimney near Croydon.

Red Tailed Black Cockatoos near Croydon

Normanton and Gulflander

Like Croydon at the other end of the line, Normanton has improved significantly since our last visit and is now a very pretty well kempt small town.
The Normanton Railway museum
The Normanton Railway Station, pretty but probably leaks in the rain.
It's highlight of course is it's history with the Gulflander railmotor line to Croydon. The line still runs with the timetable established in 1859, (down on Wednesdays and back on Thursdays) and is the only Queensland rail line still officially measured and run in miles. It has never been connected to any other rail system. The rails and steel sleepers are still the originals manufactured in 1857 and laid in 1859, and since 1927, it has used railmotor cars and rolling stock, steam having been replaced by truck-engined rail cars.

The Gulflander passing our campsite on the Norman River.
The historical reason for the line (transporting gold mining related people and goods to and from Croydon) has long since replaced by tourism, but it still delivers mail to remote cattle stations along its length.

Tempted by the 50% discount for pensioners, we did a 2 hour trip on the Gulflander from Normanton to the junction at Critters Camp (population nil)and back. It was only about 25 km each way but the line is old and so are the railcars so that was the best they could manage.
I must have made a very rude train joke
We went one way in the comfort of one the a 2 remaining carriages and then retuned in the railmotor prime mover. Well that was a mistake. The railmotor only has one set of driving wheels, over which we sat, and the jolting shock as we passed over each rail joint was extremely painful and we couldn't stand much more than an hour of it. The horsehair padded seats did little to lessen the pain.
We took a 1 hour trip on the Gulflander, which was quite long enough.
But it was a good experience and we are glad we did it. The commentary was informative, even if the driver did chastise people for camping too close to the crocodile infested Norman River as we passed over the bridge. We kept very quite at that point because we had camped at that exact spot the night before. And survived.

In Normanton there is a replica of the largest crocodile ever captured, 8.5m long. Everyone puts there head in it's mouth for the camera. Everyone that is, except me.
I just held its tooth.
While in Normanton, we did a side trip to Karumba, which the only place with a beach where you can actually reach the sea around the Gulf of Carpentaria (as Burke and Wills discovered on their ill fated expedition. 3000 km they trudged and never actually got to the gulf, stopped a few km short by mangroves and mud).
Janet at Karumba where the flying boats from Europe used to land in the 30's.
Unlike Normanton, Karumba and Karumba Point have sadly deteriorated since our last visit and are now predominately fishing and boating communities and smelled that way too. But the history of flying boats landing there in the 30's on the Europe to Australia run, and the US Catalina Flying Boat base during the war are still in evidence. And it's still hard to beat a cool chardonnay at the Sunset Tavern at dusk, watching spectacular sunsets over the gulf .

Burke and Wills last stand

Moving westwards the bitumen stops shortly after Normanton and will remain that way for around 1000 km until we reach Roper Bar on the Roper River, except for some short sections near towns.

We visited Burke and Wills Camp 119, their final campsite before retreating south, having not quite made the south to north crossing of the continent. 14 trees around the camp were blazed by King and Grey, the only remaining members of the 12 original expedition members, while sitting around waiting for something to happen, while Burke and Wills tried unsuccessfully to make it to the sea on the Gulf.
One of the 14 trees blazed by King and Grey,
while waiting for Burke and Wills to return from
not quite reaching the Gulf in February 1861.
In fact we camped there too, although it was only our campsite number 65, and we didn't go around blazing trees. The other 8 members of their team had either died of injuries sustained or bailed out along the trek somewhere, fed up with the arrogance and bad planning of Burke and Wills, or maybe the skills of an artist or policemen or a camel handler (they had horses) just weren't being utilised enough.

Their foolhardiness and lack of experience is shown by the fact that they still had half their journey to go but only had 1/4 of their supplies left.

Burke and Wills died of starvation and beriberi (a disease causing inflammation of the nerves and heart failure, caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1, which I personally think was caused by eating unprocessed nardoo nuts which are a Thiaminase, which depletes the body of Vitamin B1 (Thiamin), but then I'm not a medical man) near Innamincka, right next to Cooper Creek which was teeming with fish. They had no fish hooks with them, but they had thoughtfully taken a sailmaker as one of their team. If only they hadn't shot at the aboriginals on their way north, they might have got a bit more help from them when they needed it coming south.

The Burke and Wills story would be a good subject for a comedy of errors series, if it hadn't been so tragic.

Strangely, the fact which is most overlooked is that they did actually pioneer a northerly route across the continent, when previously there had been none, roughly following the 140º line of longitude. And they did discover huge areas of good grazing country around the gulf, and somehow Burke managed to get a town named after him, so, even though 7 of the 12 member team had died on the trip, it wasn't all a total disaster.

Leichhardt Falls and Burketown

Further across the gulf towards Burketown we came to Leichhardt Falls. This is a magic spot and even though the falls had all but dried up we still spent 2 days there. The falls, or more correctly the causeway across the Leichhardt River, are on Highway One about 70 km south of Burketown. The causeway is nearly 1 km long and crosses a huge flatish rock shelf just above the falls. There is a track alongside the river which provides access to a hard, bumpy camping area on a rock shelf overlooking the falls. There are no fees and there are no facilities either but the lagoons on either side of the causeway are full of beauty and interest and crocodiles. There are beaches to explore and rock pools to investigate.
The beautiful Leichhardt Falls
A good reason not to swim here
About 50 m downstream from the current causeway is a 10 m length of bent concrete road, all that is left of a previous causeway over which we drove in 2005. The remainder of that causeway was destroyed and totally disappeared in the floods of 2006. The power of water is just amazing and each year after the wet season, the local council has to bulldoze thousands of tons of sand from the causeway, in places 10 m thick, to reopen the road.
All that's left of 1 km of concrete causeway after the 2006 wet season
The rockshelf at Leichhardt Falls. We are camped in the distance.
Burketown was small and quiet with a nice green centre but not totally uninteresting. We did locate the old Boiling Down Works which was just as exciting as it sounds. And we did camp on the banks of the Albert River which looks just the same now as when Landsborough and other early explorers charted the north flowing rivers of the Gulf in the 1860's.
Sunrise on the Albert River at Burketown, near the site of the very first port on the Gulf.
It was the navigability of the Albert River that enabled the first river port to be establish on the Gulf in October 1861, near the current town of Burketown. And it was from this first camp that Landsborough launched an unsuccessful search for the lost Burke and Wills expedition who had supposedly reached the gulf earlier the same year. Unbeknown to them, Burke and Wills had already returned to the Cooper Creek where they had died several months earlier.

Lawn Hill and Riversleigh

We were a bit ahead of schedule to meet up with Charles and Fred in Katherine so we diverted south to visit the beautiful gorge with palm fringed banks at Lawn Hill (Boodjamulla) National Park.
Lawn Hill Creek
Lawn Hill Creek
The National Park campsite was booked out so we had to stay at the normally very pleasant nearby Adels Grove where we had stayed several times before. This time, "under new management", the place had deteriorated into the most expensive campsite in the country, certainly the most expensive we had ever stayed at. I made my feelings known to their management but only got a "take it or leave it" response. The receptionist was very abrupt and said "I'm just the messenger", and I replied "And I'm just a customer". We felt exploited and will never go there or recommend Adels Grove to anyone again until they change their ways. [When we reached Kingfisher Camp further north, we found several other people had had the same experience and I felt vindicated, but the stress level remained for several days].
While at Lawn Hill, we also revisited the nearby (50 km south) Riversleigh Fossil Reserve, a world heritage location and one of the few places you can see dinosaur fossils still protruding from their original rocks. In this case they are mostly giant emu and giant crocodile fossils, the precedents of current day versions.

The area open to public display is only a few hectares but the whole reserve is over 100 sq km so who knows what other finds remain hidden from view?

Kingfisher Camp

North of Lawn Hill on the Nicholson River is a superb cattle station resort on Bowthorne Station. Kingfisher Camp a very grassy camp area stretched alongside the Nicholson River and good place to chill out for a couple of days, especially after the traumas of Adels grove.
Hard to believe this grassy campsite is in outback Queensland.
A blue-winged Kookaburra after which Kingfisher Camp is named.
The Nicholson River at Kingfisher Camp
The back tracks up from Lawn Hill were very slow and rough however, over station tracks and though several wide and/or deep creek crossings. The Lawn Hill Creek was the first, not deep, but since you can't see where the track emerges on the other bank, as it's round a bend, entering the crossing required a giant leap of faith. 

Elizabeth Creek was next and looked like a huge lake. Once again a leap of faith was required and although we could make out the exit point on the far side, it was quite deep and we built up quite a bow wave as we sailed across.
Elizabeth Creek. Looks like a wide lake and felt like it while we were crossing it.

Fortunately diesel vehicles are almost immune from water problems. It had taken us a day to get this far so we camped alongside Elizabeth Creek that night, relived to have got through unscathed.

The final large creek was actually the Nicholson River itself, although it had dried to a series of huge billabongs several km long, the crossing involved about a km of deep sandy river bed and shallow pools between the billabongs. The 140 km involved more than a dozen heavy gates to struggle with (one of which ricked Janet's back) and had taken us 2 days, hence the need to chill out.

After 2 days we moved on from Kingfisher Camp but the lady in the kiosk could see that I was still stressed out from our rotten experience at Adels Grove and gave me a big hug as we left. Lucky for her we didn't spend a week there.

The track from Kingfisher Camp to Borroloola is along Highway One, the same major highway which runs around the south of the country, like the Port Wakefield Road, but up here it's a near deserted rough gravel track. Once again the track crosses several creeks and rivers and was closed when we first reached the Cape.
Borroloola or Booroloola?
It's a long dusty track from Burketown to Borroloola, and roadhouses are few and far between. Hells Gate Roadhouse near the NT border has recently reopened, otherwise there would be nearly 600 km between fuel supplies, now that Wollogorang Roadhouse is closed permanently. Even further if you deviate to Lawn Hill as we did. That's OK for us (we have a range of over 1200 km), but not for your average motorist.

Av-Gas and Beer available here.
There is a Telstra pay phone which someone had stolen from a phone box and bolted to a gum tree long side the road. Of course, everyone stops and makes a pretend phone call.
Hello Telstra? Your phone box is full of woodworms.
The trickiest river crossing was the Calvert River and although it doesn't look too bad, the entry and exits are quite steep and the river bed is very rocky and uneven with deep rock pools to trap the unwary wheel. We made it across OK and videoed the next vehicle who demonstrated how rocky it was.

A video of the next vehicle to cross the Calvert River after we had come the other way. Doesn't look too bad does it?

Highway One in the NT.
It was at a very nice palm-lined creekside camping spot that we first noticed a drip of oil from the power steering box. We monitored it's loss for a few days and then bought a 4 litre can of fluid from a scruffy looking mechanic (there were no other kind) in Borroloola. That kept us going for several weeks while we determined if the leak was getting worse or not.

Limmen National Park

North from Borroloola lies Limmen National Park, a huge area of savannah which straddles the Nathan River Road. We'd visited the park on a previous trip and waxed lyrical about in in writing. An article was published the CMCA Magazine "The Wanderer". You can see it here.

Amongst the long distances are scattered a few gems to visit.

The Southern Lost City, an area of crazy leaning rock pinnacles, like sky-scapers after an earthquake.
At the Lost City where everything leans at crazy angles.
Butterfly Springs, the only croc free swimming place in this area,
Janet cooling off amongst the fishes at Butterfly Springs
Towns River, clear and as smooth as glass but with hidden death just below the surface. The fishing here is said to be very good.
TheTowns River, deceptively calm but salties live here...
St Vidgeons lagoon, covered in lilies and abundant with birdlife, lies about 200 km east of Mataranka along the Roper Highway (actually the Nathan River Reoad). It's part of the Roper River, a wide expanse of blue water and very attractive to boaties and fisherpeople.

It's hot and sticky here and we are heading for a meeting with Charles and Fred in Katherine tomorrow. They are currently north of Alice Springs having left Adelaide on Monday. They know all this of course since they also read these emails.

Our route across the gulf has been long, rough and slow, and we've had to cross some scarily deep and wide creek crossings. But we've been to some lovely places and had a ride on the Gulflander Train from Normanton.

Now we are into tropical wet lands again with lilly pools and cloudy, sticky conditions.

And today is our wedding anniversary but we have no champagne to celebrate with. Orange cordial just doesn't have the same impact somehow.

Luckily Charles and Fred heard our call and came to our rescue in Katherine with a welcome bottle of Grey Nomad Vintage Brut.
Champagne, Ummmm!
Anyway, all good fun still, as long as the leak in the power steering box doesn't get any worse (which it did, and also a small water hose on the side of the engine sprang a leak, and a free-wheeling hub locked itself).

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