Our first days drive from Cairns to the nice little historical town of Croydon was a rather sophisticated affair by our standards, seeing us drop past Coffee Works in Mareeba, the region that grows 80 % of Australia’s coffee. There we took the opportunity to sample some cold brew nitro – silky smooth icy cold black coffee that tricks your tastebuds into thinking it’s been sweetened and has milk added, by being poured from a tap with the help of Nitrogen, similar to beers like Guinness, mmmm…
Settling back into outback life
The next days travels took us past Normanton, where we checked out the impressively large tourist information centre that reminded us more of a museum, staffed by local Aboriginals with great local knowledge. Before heading off we couldn’t resist taking some obligatory photos with ‘Krys the Savannah King’ – a massive life-size replica of the largest Saltwater Crocodile ever caught. It was hunted and killed in 1957 by Krystina Pawlowski, a Polish crocodile hunter who amazingly switched sides and became an outspoken crocodile conservationist in her later life! That evening we camped in a sunny show ground with plenty of space for a spot of badminton – a great way to stretch our stiff legs after a long days drive 🙂
The following few days saw things become even more desolate, with towns growing further apart and roads deserted, except for the occasional monstrous road trains we overtook once having plucked up the courage!
Surprisingly we didn’t often know where we were headed each night, as the maps hadn’t finished downloading on the WikiCamps app (Australia’s campers bible) and we rarely had any signal. Amusingly this meant all we had to go on was distance and direction, while trying to home our flashing blue dot in on a campsite, shown on a blank background. It certainly provided some entertainment at the end of tedious afternoons full of monotonous driving!
A benefit to being in the wilderness of the Outback however was the enormity of the nights sky; with no light pollution, the infinite twinkling stars that flooded the sky above us was truly spellbinding.
Despite the emptiness of our surroundings, there were usually things to see along the way to reward us for driving these long lonely roads. A couple of notable examples were the never ending magnetic termite mounds that stretch out into the horizon (so called as they’re always aligned North to reduce heat from the sun) and the brilliant Royal Flying Doctors Museum in the lesser known town of Cloncurry. John Flynn is famous for setting up the innovative Royal Flying Doctors Service back in 1928, bringing much needed medical help to the remote towns of the Outback. The impressive museum features three floors full of fascinating history and enthralling stories, brought to life through a variety of galleries, exhibits and film.
Almost running out of petrol, en route to Katherine
With such large distances between anywhere, comes an element of risk. We’d done well so far to always fill up with fuel when having the chance, but unfortunately forgot while wrapped up in the awesomeness of the museum. We only noticed we were running on empty once half way to the next town, so couldn’t turn back. The next hour was therefore spent in nervous silence, as Joella and I struggled to take our eyes from the petrol gauge, willing the car to keep going. Thankfully our seemingly never-ending tank did us proud, and we made it to the forecourt of BP in Mount Isa, wearing the biggest Cheshire Cat smiles imaginable! To prevent a similar occurrence in the future, I taped a reminder to the steering wheel so it wouldn’t happen again.
After spending a night in Camooweal – the last Queensland town before the Northern Territory border, we intended to hit Tennant Creek the following day and explore the surrounding area. But following a friendly chat with the groundsman of the campsite, our plans soon changed. He recommended avoiding Tennant Creek due to the seeming collapse of the community (petty and violent crime among parts of the Aboriginal population continues to grow). Instead we headed to Banka Banka: A cattle station full of cowboy charm, featuring fire pits, dangerous bulls and camels!
Now a day ahead of schedule, we were nearing true civilisation once again; in the form of Katherine – the town “where the outback meets the tropics”. But before arriving, we couldn’t resist stopping in past the famous Daly Waters Pub for a quick feed. The old world establishment (by Australian standards) is as you’d expect from an Outback pub, but with one significant difference; there’s random stuff hanging from every inch of the ceiling and walls. As the story goes, this peculiar ritual originally started with a bunch of bras being hung up by a bus load of women, who’d lost a bet with their driver! While pretty much draped in lingerie and tucking into our steak pies, we conveniently used the free wifi to book some kayaking the next day, to explore some nearby gorges…
Attempting to avoid crocodiles and snakes in Nitmiluk Gorge
After a very early start the next day, we eventually arrived at the jetty and climbed aboard the boat that shuttled us through the first gorge. During our briefing en route, we were surprisingly advised the signs we’d spied earlier were in fact correct and there are crocs about!
With relief, we learned these are of the fresh water variety, and have brittle jaws that prevent them from tackling larger prey like humans, although can still bite if provoked. Apparently, we can be sure there are no dangerous Salt Water Crocs present from the annual floods, through the use of three methods: 1) Low level helicopter surveys during the day, 2) Night time boat inspections using search lights to look out for reflections from their eyes, and 3) Traps. Although reassuring to a point, these practices don’t sound very scientific or entirely foolproof :-/
Once we’d arrived at the end of the first gorge, we picked up our double kayak and began exploring the second, then third gorge beyond. Kayaking proved to be a fantastic way to witness the beauty of these natural geological formations in such tranquil surroundings, while they slowly changed colour from reds to oranges as the sun rose higher in the sky. Following multiple foul mouthed tirades from me, Joella can confirm it did prove difficult finding a rhythm while paddling together, but we eventually got the hang of it. On our return leg through the first gorge, we were pleasantly rewarded to a double sighting of Freshwater Crocodiles, thankfully from the safety of the boat 🙂
That evening we treated ourselves to a stay in the more expensive campsite within Nitmiluk National Park, allowing us to fit in a longer trek the next day without any driving beforehand. We opted for the charmingly sounding ‘Butterfly Gorge Trail’ that proved to be full of diverse surroundings; first we began with a hike up to a scenic viewpoint of the first gorge below, followed by trails through arid landscape then finally down into a gorge enclosing luscious rainforest.
During this last section through the thicker undergrowth I heard an ominous rustling sound that led me to immediately scream: “RUN, THERE’S A SNAKE!” despite failing to see anything that resembled a threat. We then embarrassingly spent 10 minutes trying to decide whether to proceed or turn back. It was only until some fellow hikers casually strolled past without any sort of issue, that we decided to continue, feeling a little stupid in the process! Thankfully our bravery was eventually paid off, with a beautiful waterside view of the second gorge, appropriately surrounded by fluttering butterflies.
Next stop: Darwin, to visit my Cousin Jess and her fiancé Ben!