A Travellerspoint blog

The City At The End Of The Road

(...or "The Dissonance of My Own Self-Involved Culture...We're Awful!!!")

semi-overcast 28 °C
View The Longest Road To Queensland on stevecrow's travel map.

Have you seen the movie "Somewhere in Time"? It's an old 80s romance flick starring Christopher Reeve that I saw as a kid - and the only reason I can think of why I saw it is that Superman was in it - but it stuck with me for some reason. Not to ruin it if you haven't, but the premise is that Reeve sees an old photo from the early part of the century and falls helplessly in love with a woman in the portrait. He somehow wills himself back in time to meet this woman and win her over. Just as everything is falling into place something happens - he ends up seeing a penny that is dated from his time, and this snaps him completely out of the time travel back to his old life. He tries and tries to return to the past but fails, and eventually dies of a broken heart.

Now that you're a bit bummed...what's my point exactly?

I'm standing at the counter of the Hann River Roadhouse - well over six hundred kilometres back down the peninsula from where I started at Loyalty Beach the previous morning - ordering a coffee to take-away. I greet the young girl working the counter and she hesitates for just a second before asking me where I'm from. I answer Vancouver, and return the question, and she replies Indiana. It's probably my imagination but she sounds almost disappointed that I'm not a fellow American.

She is the first North American I've heard since I stepped off the plane in Sydney almost six weeks ago. Her accent reminds me that North America exists, something I have gleefully ignored (save for the phone calls home, of course). And I realize that I only have six nights left in Oz. The end of the long journey is now painfully close.

  • **

In the warm tropical air of the previous morning, as the sun rose somewhere hidden behind the lush forest and hills to the east, I said goodbye to Loyalty Beach and to Cape York.

Soundtrack: On Fire Again by Mankind is Obsolete...and Christopher Titus.

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I spent the day making my way back down the bypass roads and the PDR. I decided to just drive as far as I could, keeping with my tendency to bank time like money: hoarding it in case I really need it, and then blowing all the left-over in one place at the end.

The only interesting thing was stopping to grab pics of the termite mounds across the street from Bramwell Roadhouse that towered over twice the height of a standard 4wd truck.

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As evening started its approach over 600 kilometres later - a respectable drive for the day - I consulted my handy camping app called WikiCamps, a fantastic little app that shows campsites ranging from resorts all the way to tiny little bush camps all over Australia, to find not much near by. I had passed the Musgrave Roadhouse a while back, and the only options the app showed within a reasonable distance were a bush camp/rest area beside a river and the Hann River Roadhouse a bit further past that.

I briefly took a look into the bush camp to find a fairly open area next to a dry river bed, and no one around. I felt the tug to just stop there for the night but something convinced me that perhaps the roadhouse would be a better choice. So, I hesitantly continued on.

The thirty kilometres before I pulled into the Hann River Roadhouse parking lot provided me a painful twenty minutes of hopeless indecision. All the comforts of a roadhouse versus an unattractive but private bush camp. The roadhouse was reasonably populated - several people sitting around having drinks and meals, and the very modest (read: bland) campground was already littered with campers. I sat in my truck for a while torturing myself for the decision, because this would very likely be my final chance for a bush camp. I sat there long enough that if anyone noticed me they probably would be wondering what the hell I was doing. After a good long think I follow my gut and pulled back out and drove the thirty kilometres back to the bush camp - unfortunately killing a bird when it failed to fly away from the middle of the road in time.

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I settled in right up beside the river bed in the soft sand for the evening. As I was prepping to make dinner I was munching on a bag of stale potato chips, the sound of which summoned a bird that flew up to a branch near me and barked out something that sounded quite demanding. I tell him or her (as if he understands, or even cares) that the chips aren't good for it. Of course, they aren't good for me either.

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Soundtrack: On Nights Like Tonight by Matthew Good.

The full moon returned, and entire cycle having passed since I started up the Connie Sue Highway. I sat around what was probably my last campfire and desecrated several of my favourite songs on the guitar. Not once since arriving at this camp the second time did I have a moment of regret. There is nothing quite like camping by yourself in the middle of no where...well, there was the odd traffic along the PDR a few hundred metres away to remind me I was not in the middle of a desert, but it was good enough for me.

The next morning as I was gathering breakfast, the bird came back. S/he perched above my site and once again started chirping at me. I assumed it was still sore I didn't share my chips. As I was rummaging around in my fridge I saw through the open rear doors that the bird had landed on my table, and had the plastic cap from my water jug in its beak. It stared at me indignantly, shat on the table, and flew away.

I wasn't sure what it planned on doing with the plastic cap, but I'm sure it considered this a win.

During the entire breakfast, this feathered beast wouldn't leave me alone. It tried to sneak behind me as I ate to get into the truck, and at one point had a buddy try to distract me. Bloody smart, these little pricks. As I ate my last bite of toast, it hollered at me one last time and finally flew away.

I guess jerks come in all shapes and sizes.

  • **

Soundtrack: Pieces by Claire Voyant, followed by Jim Jeffries.

Half an hour later I'm pushing the lid down on my take-away instant coffee as I walk back to the truck, still weirded out by the young American working in a roadhouse in back-country Queensland. And as it turns out, that was really just the beginning.

As I continue south the land begin shift away from the Outback; the creeks and rivers I cross are still running, the road winds over numerous hills...

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The sight of mountains more than a few hundred metres high catches me off guard; despite the absurdity in the suggestion that a mountain could sneak up on you, I still didn't expect them once they were right in front of me. They make the land seem foreign, the least Australian of all the places I've been (another absurd thought).

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At the south end of the PDR I turn east towards the coast, making my way through a remarkable pass past the "Black Mountain".

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I follow the highway to Cooktown and explore the town for a short time, finding my way to the top of the tall hill the town wraps itself around, for some spectacular 360-degree views.

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After getting as much out of Cooktown as one will get in the space of an hour, I head back down the highway and turn down the Bloomfield road towards the Daintree Rainforest, stopping at the classic Lion's Den Hotel for lunch.

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The Bloomfield Road, although paved, is extremely narrow and very winding, snaking its way through dense forest and vibrant meadows. It makes for moderately paced but thoroughly enjoyable travel.

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Just past the town of Bloomfield is where I had planned on diverting to my final real 4wd adventure, an infamous road known as the CREB Track that branches to the west and then south straight through the heart of the Daintree. Due to the density of the jungle the route cuts through, after any amount of rain the road surface - primarily a soft red clay that twists up and down across steep valleys - takes weeks to dry out because of the lack of direct sun. It is common for the road to be closed for long lengths of time until months after the wet season ends, and even then, there are no guarantees. Suffice to say, the road is closed, and I will not be tackling this one.

I suppose I need to leave *something* on the table.

Instead I continue along the Bloomfield Road that becomes known as the Bloomfield Track as it traverses the eastern coastal route through the Daintree. As it were this track is no walk in the park either: even though many of the areas where the otherwise gravel track climbs across the hillside and down through gullies and creek beds are lined with concrete slabs, these inclines are insanely steep and single lane with no warning of on-coming traffic until you are locking eyes with the driver. After one hair-pin turn that takes me a bit by surprise I concentrate on keeping under 30 kilometres an hour, and find myself engaging 4wd just to get a firm hold on the steep sections at that speed.

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The road eventually crosses a wide creek and turns into a normal paved highway as I enter the small village of Cape Tribulation in the heart of the Daintree coast. It is early afternoon but this is my stop tonight, a certain magic engulfing the dense wet jungle and post-card beaches craving to be unearthed.

I start my tour at the beach that stretches north-west of Cape Tribulation, and find a tropical paradise lacking any of the over-sold ambiance of a typical sandy getaway; it very much looks and feels like a national park.

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It is here in the parking lot I overhear a father lecturing his young son on the dangers of wading into the waters here, repeating numerous times the warnings on the sign perched at the point where the trail empties out onto the sand about the possible presence of saltwater crocodiles in the area. There is something hectic and certain in his rather loud tirade, bordering on a contextual paranoia. I realize, it is the same tone of voice you hear when you say "Australia" and the other person says "Australia??? Isn't everything there trying to kill you?"

Of course, they' re North American. Jeez...is this what we sound like?

I chuckle under my breath as I return to the truck, but at the same time I'm quite irritated. Irrationally, to be sure, but irritated nonetheless.

Like Goldilocks it takes me three attempts to find a camp ground just right: the first one that I had found through my WikiCamps app - a beautiful rustic resort right on the beach with a restaurant and bar and a pool - had a waiting list...for the overflow lot. The second, a very poorly-rated camp ground and lodge right in town had plenty of space, looked semi-decent from the outside, and was cheap...but had a catch in the form of the most peculiar liquor policy in that I had to hand over all my alcohol for safe storage until I check out. No, this was not some Aboriginal dry-community law, it had something to do with a very restrictive liquor permit that only allowed the property to serve alcohol - that they sold - in their own bar. I get as far as filling in my name before I put the pen down and leave...really on principle alone.

The third choice turns out to be just right - in that they have space, no dumb rules, and give me a discount for mentioning that I found them on WikiCamps. When I told the girl I had just left the place across the road due to the weird liquor thing, she rolled her eyes - the awful experience I would have been in for at that place, at least according to her (and many reviews on WikiCamps), only began with that rule.

I head back across the road in the last hours of the afternoon to walk along the beach and wade a short way into the warm water - I'm not particularly concerned about any crocodiles sneaking up on me in 6 centimetres of water from a sandy beach that stretches away in both directions.

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It is still quite warm, and very humid; already a couple of short rain showers have passed over the area. They felt less like rain and more like the clouds were sweating off the excess water they picked up on their way towards the mountains. None of them lasted more than a minute.

The following morning after packing up I'm standing at a cafe waiting for a breakfast sandwich when several people begin gathering around outside the campground reception, which is also a tour booking office...the many wetsuits in the crowd revealing this to be some kind of reef snorkel and/or diving tour. This is where I think I learn a very valuable lesson.

You can spot him a mile away: he comes padding through the crowd, with his miserable-looking family in tow (I mean to say, they looked miserable) over to the cafe order counter. I'll forgive the flip-flops (which I maintain are not real footwear and shouldn't be worn outside of a bathroom or pool deck - evah!) because we are in a very warm rainforest. A short man, mid-aged like me, with his wetsuit cresting his ample pot-belly and stopping at his exposed hideously overgrown bear-rug of a chest. His open light-pink button-up t-shirt hangs off of him screaming "where's the cruise-ship buffet?" beneath his equally hairy face...trimmed beard and moustache complimented with aviator sunglasses and protected by...a *sunvisor*.

I don't even have to hear a single word from his mouth to know...but since I don't have my sandwich yet, I'm forced to anyway.

His loud North American "hi there!" as he reaches the counter is followed by a request for a "...long...white...", the order drawn out as if to make the point that he is being forced to mentally translate on the fly from "Starbucks" to "Rest of World" when ordering coffee. Before the young Aussie dude behind the counter - who I swear must have been stifling some kind of snicker or at least a sideways grin - can confirm the order, the man proceeds to ask if a "...long...black..." would be faster. Because remember, to a North American, everything is about fast/quick/instant. Inside, I die a little hearing this.

As he's ordering he asks the young man's name, probably to be friendly but to me it sounds more like he makes a habit of cataloging names in case he ever has to complain to a higher-up.

I finally get my sandwich, and I rush away as if there were a chance I could be grouped in with this guy and others like him.

I make a connection...a very important one. The entire time this guy was engaging with the Aussie guy, his tone, his approach, his attitude...seemed to suggest that he truly believed himself to be something special here. As if someone from North America is in some way an exotic visitor in Oz, worthy of intrigue and discussion and some dubiously earned recognition for having traveled so far - meaning out of his own country - to grace a foreign land with his presence.

I don't mean to pick on this guy - though he makes it pretty easy to do - because I think we all do this. I know I have for sure somehow had it at one point in my head that people from other countries might find it neat to meet someone from Canada (somehow forgetting the fact my natural social skills leave a lot of room for improvement). I think back to my first trip - how I had such a hard time figuring out how to navigate the minute little differences in customs and habits - and didn't really meet a lot of people. Fast-forward to two trips later, and I've figured out that being a Canadian in Australia is far from being anything out of the ordinary...and you know what? I've had the time of my life.

North Americans have a bit of a reputation for being some of the worst tourists in the world. I'm beginning to really understand why.

I'm still cringing as I pull out of the campground, the crowd crossing the highway with this guy sticking out of the tour group like a bright pink car-wreck. I'm being pretty obnoxious myself getting this annoyed over something that is absolutely none of my business - and I'm probably just grouchy that my trip of a lifetime is approaching the end of *its* lifetime - but I still find myself muttering under my breath when, as I'm starting down the highway, a car pulls up to the side of the road and a young man jumps out sporting a pair of shiny American flag swimmers. I curse the invasion of North Americans into my vacation as I drive away, not noticing I'm driving down the right side of the road.

  • **

Soundtrack: Eventide by Claire Voyant...and Ron White. Because at this point, why not listen to an American redneck comedian?

The trip from Cape Tribulation to the greater Cairns area is not far but I have no problems finding ways to make it last the entire day. I start with a leisurely walk along one of the Daintree's boardwalk nature trails, learning all kinds of fascinating things about the rainforest's swamp lands and mangroves.

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Some interesting facts: one type of mangrove spreads its seeds when its fruit explodes with a very noticeable "pop!", several of which I hear as I walk the path. Another type has only a 6% chance of germination...unless the seed passes through the digestive system of a cassowary...at which point there is then a 94% chance of germination (for those who don't know, a cassowary is a medium-sized flightless bird similar to mashing up an ostrich, and peacock, and a turkey; they are native to this area, endangered, and can be quite aggressive and even dangerous if threatened). The seedlings of another type of mangrove grow off the surface of the parent tree, and when they are ready they detach into the high tide and float away until finding a suitable place to root. Very cool.

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Further up the road I spend more time pulling off at breathtaking beaches...

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...overlooks...

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...across the Daintree River ferry...

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...more beaches...

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...and around lunch when I'm within twenty minutes of Cairns I decide to venture up towards Kuranda - the small town where the gentleman I met at Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route said he found his circular travel digeridoo. I spotted it on the map a few nights previously, and it's only 15 kilometres out of my way. What I don't notice from the map is that it is 15 kilometres straight up a mountainside to the far east end of the Atherton Tablelands. Suffice to say, there are some nice views along the road.

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I pull into Kuranada to find a tourist-centric town consisting of a small handful of cafes scattered amongst the numerous trinket, clothing, souvenir, Aboriginal Art, and other various incarnations of gift shops.

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I wander the town, investigating primarily the Aboriginal stores. Several specialize in digeridoos, but none of them seem to have this small conical version I seek. Suffice to say I doubt I'll get a full-sized digeridoo in my suitcase without sawing it in half first.

I find a large open market in the centre of town...

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...and it's here I find my digeridoo. It isn't cheap, but I spring for it anyway.

After lunch, I make the trek back down the hill and head towards a caravan park near Cairns - the Lake Placid Tourist Park - and upon checking in ask is there is a car wash nearby. There is...and so my beast goes from this:

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...to this:

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As I'm cleaning out the truck I befriend my neighbours - a couple from South Australia, Werner and Maryanne if memory serves correct (it probably doesn't). Absolutely wonderful folk who I spend the evening chatting with; they even invite me to dinner. Despite the fact I'm not in a nice remote campground somewhere in the Outback, I couldn't have asked for a nicer last night of camping in Australia.

Tomorrow I drop off my truck and enter the final stretch of this unforgettable journey. The road trip will be at an end, but there are still a few things left to do and discover here in my beloved Australia. But those are things for another day; tonight, right now, this moment, I'm stretching out in my rooftop tent in my 4wd camper truck under a diorama of stars and full moon. Right now, only this moment is important...it's the only moment that matters.

Goodnight everyone - from just outside Cairns, Queensland.

Posted by stevecrow 23:12 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Cape York

(...or "A Dip, A Ship, and Some Chips On My Trip to the Tip")

semi-overcast 30 °C
View The Longest Road To Queensland on stevecrow's travel map.

In the inescapable humidity of the afternoon peninsula sun, the Musgrave Roadhouse sweats history.

One of the few remaining settlements along the original overland telegraph line that linked Brisbane to Thursday Island off the far north tip of Cape York before radio and satellite became things, the station was established in the later 1800s and to this day still features some of the original structures - including two graves of pioneers from the early 1900s. I would not do the entire story justice attempting to repeat it here, but I do spend a fair amount of time reading the history of the station and the group that forged their way north along the Cape through an extremely hostile environment - drought, lack of non-toxic vegetation to feed their horses and cattle, monsoon rains and cyclones, and Aboriginal tribes that took to stealing pieces of the cable and other equipment in order to upgrade their spear tips to better slaughter the team's animals and impede their progress to the best of their ability. The Aboriginals of those days, as they had been for the previous tens of thousands of years before, were if nothing else very adaptable.

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The roadhouse is also very popular. Only a short drive from where the Dixie Road (or Dunbar-Koolatah Road or Koolatah-Oriners Road or goodness knows what other names the gps cycled through as I made the trip) meets the Peninsula Development Road - or PDR - the slanted field of a campground is already blanketed with a healthy dose of vacationers. I manage to tuck away in a corner and keep a reasonable amount of space around me; being a single vehicle does have its advantages. I have heard that the Cape can be extremely busy during the school holidays; this fact may haunt me later.

I relax for the afternoon, beginning to really feel the effects of such a hectic and nomadic lifestyle in the past several weeks. I'm wearing down a bit, and even sitting down to write seems fatiguing. Recognizing this, I take no time deciding to grab dinner from the roadhouse and avoid any unnecessary effort.

I spend some time after dinner in the dim glow of late dusk and citronella candlelight gazing over my map of Cape York. I have seven nights remaining with the truck, and I should try to save a couple of those towards the end of the journey in case something comes up. This leaves five usable nights to explore an area many spend weeks enjoying. What's new?

I come up with a reasonable plan: nothing. No plan.

I make a mental note of some places I want to visit, but otherwise decide to leave everything else, including where I'll be staying and how long it might take me to reach the very tip of Cape York (oddly enough referred to as "The Tip"), completely in the wind...which by the way has picked up, providing but a bit of relief from the humidity.

Oh, what tomorrow may bring.

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  • ***

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What it brings is a moment of something familiar.

Soundtrack: This Tornado Loves You by Neko Case.

The fresh air funneling through the truck cab as I drive north from the Musgrave Roadhouse along the PDR only enhances the sensation, and it takes me a bit of time to drill down on exactly what it is. I realize, as the road winds up and across the Great Dividing Range, if you ignore the obvious differences in vegetation and trees - and wildlife - this section of road is strikingly similar to some roads along the Pacific West Coast, the ominously low and rapidly shifting marine clouds reminiscent of driving down the Oregon Coast or on Vancouver Island. Except, in reverse, since the sun is moving in the opposite direction.

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But all good things - like pavement - must come to an end; after which the road becomes plagued with potholes and long stretches of roadwork, but after passing Coen it improved dramatically. Sealed for reasonable stretches, and a compact red highway when not. It narrows slightly for a while when I turn off the main road that veers west towards Weipa, the largest settlement on the peninsula, but eventually widens again and this allows me to make reasonably good time towards the "Tip".

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I stop a handful of times to admire the surroundings; for example, the turnoff to a road called the Frenchman's Track, a seductive sliver of tyre tracks leading into a narrow and overgrown road towards...well...I don't even really know.

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When I see roads like this now I need to restrain the overwhelming urge to abandon whatever current goal or plan I have and follow them.

Further on I stop at the Bramwell Roadhouse for lunch. Here the road branches: the "main" road, the Southern Bypass, turns to the east for some ways before eventually correcting itself back to the north. And what is it bypassing? The Old (Overland) Telegraph Track.

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The original road up the peninsula followed the telegraph line for reasons that should be obvious, but over time deteriorated into a notorious narrow, overgrown, and most notably gully-riddled track only travelled now by the most seasoned and well-equipped 4wd adventurers. Specifically, several of the creek crossings on the OTT are extremely eroded, sometimes with sharp turns with water depth unpredictable and often hidden beneath murky brown water and fluctuating constantly...even overnight depending on precipitation. These fords require a vehicle prepared specifically for deep crossings, and often require walking the crossing on foot first. Countless vehicles have met their watery end along this road when they weren't high enough, or stalled mid-crossing, or flipped due to hitting hidden pits in the creek bed too fast, or having the rear window smash inward flooding the inside the cab when hit by the powerful wake the vehicle created behind it because it slowed down. One of the biggest highlights of a real Cape York adventure holiday is this section of road, many taking the OTT and conquering the crossings, then setting up in the campsites that have popped up around each gully and spending the day...or days...being endlessly entertained by all the others who try and succeed...or fail. This is a real pastime here (seriously...Google it).

Sounds like a real "ad-ven-chah"...

But I can't go this way. The unmaintained section of OTT is the single road that I am not allowed to take the truck on, as per my hire agreement. If I go down this road and anything happens to my vehicle - and it indisputable that if I try my luck something *will* happen - I'm on the hook for everything: damage, recovery, towing, you name it. I guess the hire company has had too many waterlogged Landcruisers to deal with because of this road. I wonder how much a recovery from the Gary Highway would have cost?

I continue along the bypass road with no real destination for this evening in mind, simply enjoying the drive...not rushing, though not stopping for any real length of time until mid-afternoon when I turn off the road and drive in to see Fruit Bat Falls, a popular day-use spot in Heathlands Regional Park. Along the walking path down to the falls from the car park I spot some Pitcher Plants I read about at the trail head:

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These guys are carnivorous, growing near the water to feast on flies and mosquitos. A very welcome plant, indeed.

The waterfall itself is beautiful (and croc-free), ideal for swimming and lounging around for the day.

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It looks awesome and very inviting, but oddly enough I don't feel like being the weird middle-aged guy all by himself diving into the pool with the rest of the families and younger crowd.

Instead I decide to target a place called Canal Creek, a campsite by one of the famous creek crossings on the Old Telegraph Track...that I'm not supposed to be on. However, it's only seven kilometres along the OTT to Elliot Falls National Park campground (which I would also like to see). I consider that the access road to a national park campground must be reasonably ok, and this other camping area is close to it, so I should be ok provided I don't do anything stupid. I've heard that there are often camps on both sides of the creek crossings on the OTT so I shouldn't have to attempt the crossing if it shows any potential for disaster. Besides, 7 kilometres isn't far if I must abandon the plan, and there is still plenty of time before nightfall.

I drive back to where the bypass road, the north section of the OTT, and the access track to Fruit Bat Falls meet, and turn north up the OTT.

Not even a kilometre towards Elliot Falls the road plummets down into a very wide and cloudy brown creek. So much for that idea. Is this really the way to a National Park?

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This crossing isn't marked on my Hema map...which means it isn't even considered worth warning about.

I watch a vehicle blast through the creek coming the other way, the driver stopping and confirming that I'm headed the right way. He gives me some tips for crossing the creek...it doesn't seem *too* tricky, and we're both sure the Landcruiser would barrel through this with no issue. But I'm not concerned as much about the truck's abilities as I am mine. Besides...one wrong move and my souvenir from this trip will be a lofty repair bill.

A crowd begins to gather on this side of the crossing, and my ego is slightly relieved to find I'm not the only one dismayed to find this gully on the road to a national park and apprehensive about the crossing. People from a two-vehicle convoy - one towing - start walking the crossing while another group of younger folks sit on the bank watching for any action to happen. After some time and watching another vehicle come through and rocket across, the convoy gains confidence and begins preparing to make the ford. Meanwhile I hear the younger group saying that they heard that Canal Creek is quite high at the moment and lots of vehicles have needed winching out. So even if I make this crossing I might get stopped before reaching my destination...and I have no chance of staying at the national park because I did not *book ahead*...

The risk isn't worth it. I sigh, turn around, and head back down the OTT to the bypass road. As much as I'd love to stay and see how the other folks fare, I'm not sure where I'm headed and how far I'll need to go.

One woman from the convoy mentioned that there may be a usable camp site on this side of the first gully headed back down the southern section of the OTT called Sailor Creek, about ten kilometres back down the bypass road, close enough that again if it doesn't pan out I haven't wasted much time on it.

I backtrack along the bypass road back to where the southern section of the OTT meets the road, and turn down. The few kilometres that I drive the OTT are mostly in excellent condition as there seems to be an active gravel excavation (or something similar) along the road. Just as the road begins to decline, both in condition as well as elevation towards a visibly rutted and eroded embankment, I spot some campers set up beside the road at an intersection. There isn't any remaining space in the area, so I ask them if they happen to know if there are any other sites nearby. They direct me down the narrow track from the intersection saying there is plenty of room in that direction. I turn to return to my truck - almost stepping on a baby python just lounging in the middle of the road - to find another vehicle waiting beside mine.

The group of younger folks from the last crossing also decided not to risk it and followed me south to the same place, perhaps to see if my contingency plan would pan out. Fair enough. A short drive down the road we find a nice wide (albeit not particularly attractive) clearing for camping...

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...just above a small brook...probably 'Sailor Creek'.

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We all decide to camp here for the night. Of course, my North American brain at first exclaims "careful!!!" for a brief moment before I logically conclude that if anyone should be concerned about anyone else, it would probably be them...about me

Skip forward to a fellow named Ash, his girlfriend Prue, their friend Danae who owns the vehicle they decided not to subject to the mud hole, and myself - all sitting around a large bonfire playing a card game called "Skip-Bo" and exchanging all kinds of stories. These guys were in their late twenties, but I found myself far more comfortable with them than most of the older folk I've shared campfires with. It turns out to be a truly remarkable night, definitely one of my favourites; these guys are genuine, friendly and super cool.

It rains overnight, long after we all retired. The first real raindrops I've heard since Manly Beach almost six weeks ago. Less a problem for me, but I hear Ash get up and nail down a tarp over their tents in the middle of the night.

  • ***

In the morning, we take some group photos - they literally have a Polaroid, which is pretty cool.

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We exchange farewells and email addresses, and as I drive away from Sailor Creek back towards the bypass road I realize that out of all the people I've met on this trip, I'll probably miss these guys the most. I think I left a ghost at that camp site.

Soundtrack: The Fall by Us Is Them Too.

I cross the Jardine Ferry about an hour and a hundred dollars later...

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...and push on towards the Tip. I still have no real destination or plan in mind, so I decide to check out a couple of the camp resorts near the Tip before formulating any real idea of what the next few days are going to look like. Due to the holidays, I might find nothing.

Less than two hours later I reach Seisa, a popular fishing tourist spot and the last real community before the Tip, and I wander into a resort just north of the town - the Loyalty Beach Campground - to take a look. I fall in love almost immediately: a large bush-camp free-for-all style area stretched along the beach with plenty of shade, food and supplies, a restaurant-bar, cellular reception, and only a short drive from Seisa. Definitely worth it if they have space, but there is one other place I want to scope out first.

I venture up a short-cut towards the very north side of the Cape - a reasonably rough 4wd track I find quite entertaining - and pull into the Punsand Bay Resort. Unlike Loyalty Beach which is on the west side of the peninsula Punsand is right on the north end - with beautiful white sand beaches (probably for looks only...), with a pool and reasonably nice-looking restaurant/bar. There is something attractive about this place, and I decide to try my luck for a spot for the next two nights...but the gentleman at the office kindly informs me - which is nicer than laughing in my face - that no space will open up until Monday. It's currently Friday.

He points me towards a bush camp on the north-west side of the Cape - a good "plan C" - but before resorting to this I gun it back to Loyalty Beach to find they have plenty of space. I book in for two nights.

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Another fast-forward to me, having not even seen the actual Tip yet (I'll do that tomorrow), spending the whole afternoon doing absolutely nothing other than watching calm waters of the Torres Strait occasionally broken by some creature far out from shore; a brief sparkling spray of water exploding from the surface. I never find out what it/they was/were (whales? dolphins? crocs pretending to be whales or dolphins?)

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After watching an incredible sunset, I sit down for dinner at the restaurant on the beach...because doing nothing all afternoon takes a lot out of you, so why cook? Ignoring the small and very brief power blackout that occurs during my meal (which provides but a moments grace from the horrible bargain-bin 60's surf music they are playing at the time), I'd like to move onto another entry in "Steve, Australian Food Critic".

I order something called "The Fisherman's Basket". That was the entire description. I have no idea what is coming.

What comes is a plate with a large bowl full of deep-fried stuff. Along the outside of the bowl is a salad of some kind, two pre-cooked and chilled whole prawns, and a raw oyster in the shell.

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In the bowl, I find various shaped seafood curiosities on a bed of chips. My first items are fish-stick-like things that end up tasting remarkably like fish sticks. In Canada, we would probably call these "fish sticks" or "mom/dad's tired tonight; just eat it."

Next are large rings that are very likely calamari. And unless I'm mistaken and they are actually onion rings made from a 120-year-old shallot...it's calamari.

I tackle the prawns, and as monstrous and meaty as they are, I'm not a fan of food that has heads with staring eyes still attached...judging. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to eat the heads, but regardless I don't, leaving two little decapitated sea-insect heads on my plate staring blankly at me as I continue my meal. Not cool.

One long thin thing that could have been a deep-fried leg of a face-hugger from Alien is curiously flavourful, with hints of spices and a peculiar texture that make me hope this thing was made - created, rolled up, whatever - as opposed to simply hacked off some weird sea monster and served up as is.

There is a fillet of some kind of white-fish, and as good as it is, at this point it is a tad pedestrian compared to the rest of the adventure the dish has been so far.

Last up - I'll spare you the salad; it's full of beans, and that's a deal-breaker for me - are two plump breaded nuggets that I suspect from the start are deep-fried oysters. And unless they are actually flash-fried Leprechaun lungs that had slightly spoiled before cooking, my initial guess was correct. My first deep fried oysters...and god willing, hopefully my last.

And finally, the raw oyster in the shell.

Fuck that, I'm not going near it.

  • ***

I think my soul needs a shower after last night's meal.

The day starts quite early, thanks to the folks beside me who seem to enjoy the sound their vehicles make every time they lock and unlock it with the key remote. My today plan is to pack up, drive up to the Tip, and get back before the rather sweet spot I'm in - that gives me plenty of shade and a full view of the beach and ocean - is taken.

Soundtrack: Maw by Chelsea Wolfe.

The drive to the Tip is, in itself, a bit of an adventure. A narrow, winding road carved into the rain forest through small creeks, between foothills and beneath thick ceilings of tropical trees and vines.

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I arrive at an inconspicuous car park at the foot of a trail that leads straight up and along a rocky hillside towards the northern most piece of Australian mainland coast. The view from the trail is amazing in all directions...

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I reach the sign marking the northern tip of Australia, a feat accomplished by few Australians...and likely far fewer Canadians. At least Australia has an accessible northern tip...I have no interest in ever seeing anything that could be described as the northern tip of mainland Canada.

Some nice folks help me take the obligatory selfie signifying my accomplishment:

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In Perth, as I wandered along the waterfront, I was as far from home as I've ever been. Now, standing at the very tip of mainland Australia, I'm as close to home as I've been since stepping off the plan in Sydney almost six weeks ago.

And after enjoying the view for a while, having witnessed a school of dolphins swimming along the clear channel between the Tip and the island to the north (no usable pictures, sorry), I slowly hike back to the truck and head down towards Seisa.

I resupply in town, and just before returning to the campground load up the roof rack with firewood, suffering several minor stings from angry green ants that crawl from the wood and cling to my arms in protest.

So, what are the chances my spot is still available only a few hours after I left it? Apparently not very good: a massive convoy - fourteen vehicles if counted correctly - have encircled the entire area where I was...including the firepit I intended to use. The obvious thing to do would be to check out other areas of the reasonably sized camping area...but I'm stubborn and have a challenging time letting go of the perceived occupation of an area I otherwise have no rightful claim to. I spent at least half an hour shimmying the truck back and forth in various orientations trying to get as close as possible to where I was without getting too close to the convoy in order to getting my view back, but still have the truck level. It takes quite a while of back and forth, start and stop. I'm sure I annoyed some of the invaders beside me. That will teach them for...uh...taking a perfectly suitable and available camping area for their large group.

I'm denied the pleasure of serenading my neighbors with my afternoon amateur 'guitarra improvisada' since they all pack into a few vehicles and head off somewhere for the day. Regardless I enjoy the peaceful afternoon playing, writing, reading and watching the ocean through my reduced line of sight before enjoying the sunset from the bar.

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I never get my campfire - as much as I'd love to blame this on my unwitting rivals beside me for taking the only real firepit around, I can't since I inquired earlier about firepits and the manager informed me to just make a fire anywhere on the flat ground. I just don't bother. Instead I amuse myself by shining my headlamp along the ground as small sparkling lights reflect back at me from the various piles of dried leaves. They're quite pretty, like little blue-green diamonds. Turns out these lights are the eyes of wolf spiders...dozens of them all around me. Most of them small...a couple not so much. I shouldn't be as entertained as I am; I must be wearing down.

At least I can avoid stepping on dozens of wolf spiders.

Posted by stevecrow 19:26 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

The Savannah Way - Lawn Hill and the Gulf

(...or "Welcome to Queensland. You Better Have Booked Ahead.")

semi-overcast 30 °C
View The Longest Road To Queensland on stevecrow's travel map.

===Part IV: North by Northeast===

Soundtrack: Not Alone by Suicidal Romance. Followed by more Maria Bamford...because Maria Bamford.

Crossing into Queensland is symbolic, at best. Coming the other way there are large billboards declaring a huge warm welcome to the Northern Territory. Going east however the only signs are those warning me against transporting banana, mango, or sugar cane plants or equipment across the border. Heavy penalties will apply.

Welcome to Queensland.

The road from the border is sealed in longer sections, the tropical flora slowly changing to plains of modest greenery with the occasional escarpment to break up the monotony. I stop by Hell's Gate Roadhouse because they have an espresso machine; the billboard at the road advertising "Real Coffee!". Even in these parts they are not entirely uncivilized.

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Later the road returns to classic Outback green on red with a fine layer of dust.

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Some way down the road just past an Aboriginal community called Doomadgee I have to make the decision as to whether I continue on my intended route towards Burketown or detour south to Lawn Hill National Park as advised. If I maintain my course and nothing goes off the rails I'll likely end up with spare time to allocate at Cape York.

But then I perform a very simple calculation in my head: the number of times I'm likely to be this close to Lawn Hill National Park in Queensland Australia in my life time is probably one. Now.

The gentleman in Borroloola described the road south from here to Lawn Hill as one of the better gravel roads he's traveled. It is relatively tame to be sure, but quite meandering, the minute details of which are hidden beneath the scale of the otherwise simple and straight lines in the road atlas. Once the road turns down into Lawn Hill Station it begins to straighten out in long stretches across grass plains but has several groves and creeks to navigate.

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Outback Solo Observation #5: recent studies (that I invented just now) have shown that on any given day there are approximately 70 giga-million flies alive in Australia. At any given geographic location, there will be about 40 million within the immediate ten square metres around you. And if you are travelling by yourself...you're their only target. (Also, and it may be my imagination, but Queensland flies seem much more aggressive than in other states).

In any case, the detour is worth it.

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First, Lawn Hill National Park has a small cellular bubble that lets me get my call home that I missed in Daly Waters. But mainly it provides a wonderful afternoon wandering through - and above - a gorgeous ancient tropical gorge.

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The day is overcast, this allows me to tackle the hike up to the top of the flat - and exposed - plateau that overlooks the gorge and jungle around it in relative comfort (compared to what it would have been in the direct sun; even in winter the sun here is intense and potentially dangerous if not properly prepared).

After descending back down I continue exploring the trails around the area, and at one point a snake slithers across the path ahead of me. It’s too quick, I don't get a usable picture...but I don't get bitten either. All I know is that it was black, and chances are that is bad. I could be wrong though.

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Queensland has a very rigid system for campground bookings in their national parks, and you cannot simply show up without reserving and paying for your site ahead of time. I arrive back at the day use lot, thinking since I need a place for the night and I'm already here I may as well try my luck and log onto the Queensland park site to see if I can snag a site. If websites could laugh at people, this would have been a textbook incident. But it was nice enough to recommend a bush-camp some 50 kilometres - and due to the roads, almost an hour travel time - south of here. Totally in the wrong direction.

Just outside the entrance to Lawn Hill National Park, about 10 kilometres from the gorge parking lot, is Adel's Grove taking full and well-deserved advantage of this meaningless red tape. And it is very much a grove, a large free-for-all camping area tucked under a thick umbrella of tropical vegetation beside the unearthly azure Lawn Hill Creek. I manage to squeeze into a small spot under gum and palm trees, and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening pouring sweat in the sweltering humidity.

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At least they have a patio bar.

***

I pull out in the morning having thoroughly enjoyed my time here. Adel's Grove is really pretty; it would have been a nice place to enjoy a couple days relaxing. Maybe in another life.

Soundtrack: Near You by Technoir. And Bill Burr.

Nothing interesting really happens today over the course of four hundred kilometres of driving, with the exception that at one point early on I catch air. Don't tell the hire company...I wasn't going that fast (honest!), but the road from Adel's Grove to Gregory Downs seems to enjoy peek-a-boo with its dust-lined pot-holes, and I manage to hit a particular one at the right angle and I good-ol'-boys it for a small distance…but since this is a lumbering Toyota Landcruiser, the effect is amplified somewhat when I land. Nothing breaks, but I swear I hear the truck sneer some very choice words under its constant rumbling.

Solo Outback Travel Observation #6: if you are travelling alone and don't have someone smarter than you helping you pack, don't bring light cream-coloured shorts for a trip through a country whose most abundant resource is fine iron-oxide dust.

I refuel and resupply in Normanton, and check into a local caravan park as the thought of carrying on and looking for bush camps seems a bit tiring. I chat with a nice couple from South Australia who provide enough tips about Cape York that I don't really remember, well, any of them. But they were happy to help, and very friendly.

I spend little time packing up in the morning; my road today may be hiding some unknown challenge.

Soundtrack: Kiss the Dirt (Falling Down the Mountain) by INXS. In fact, I listen to INXS as much as I can before some song that stings the heart comes on and I have to change my selection. I move on to Bobcat Goldthwaite.

I leave the pavement again; the main road turning west towards the coastal tourist hot-spot of Karumba, me following the Burke Development Road north east-ish. The scenery is beautiful...

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...but the road itself is made of gravel with large patches of a very fine gray dust. It is also roadtrain-infested. A couple times I find myself slip-streaming in a cloud that leaves me completely blind in all directions. If I slow down or stop, someone behind me might not see me and slam into the truck...and I can't slide over to the right, I won't see oncoming traffic until it is too late. Thankfully I have the UHF radios, and several times I find myself chatting with these roadtrain operators - who once aware of me, happily help in finding safe places for me to pull around them. Super friendly and helpful, every one of them, mostly because I suspect they don't often get treated by other travelers with the respect they command (recall, these things are upwards to 50 metres long; the term *train* is not being used frivolously!) Least of by what I suspect they all think is a "Yank".

By midday I reach the point where the Burke Development Road and the Savannah Way turn harder to the east and slightly south towards Cairns, but I'm more interested in a short-cut to the Peninsula Development Road - a route called the Dixie Track that continues north-east across a lower-lying area of the gulf that can be tricky if not impossible after any substantial amount of rain. The weather seems to have been good in the area over the past while so the going should be OK.

Near the start of the track at the Mitchell River crossing I stop and converse with a local surveyor who shows me maps of all the station lands I'll be travelling through. He advises that if I need to stop along the way for the night, I should call into whatever station I'm in and request permission. Good advice, but hopefully not needed.

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I cross the very wide but thankfully shallow Mitchell River and follow the Dixie Road. It turns out to be a marvelous road, very good condition up to the last station on this side of the low lands that the road cuts through; it then shrinks down to a narrow track with several ruts and washouts that force me to maintain a casual speed. This is fine - I've seen worse, and besides, the day is still full and the road is unquestionably beautiful.

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Soundtrack: Set Out Running by Neko Case.

The road improves after passing Dixie Station and the last forty kilometres are just cruising through more serene Outback Queensland montages of gullies, forests and road-crest viewpoints.

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And as the afternoon shifts from earlier to later, almost before I know it, I arrive at the Peninsula Development Road.

I've reached the road to Cape York.

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Posted by stevecrow 23:01 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

The Savannah Way: Across the Top

(...or "Happy Canad-...I mean, Territory Day!")

semi-overcast 32 °C
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Something I've been meaning to bring up. Something subtle, but undeniably significant. It took me a while to really take notice.

It seems that at some point, maybe in the past couple years, that the Australians all got together and collectively made a decision. A generation-defining cultural shift...something you only notice by actually being here.

I regret to inform you all that it seems that "G'day" has been universally replaced with "How-r going?" as the official Australian greeting.

There are, of course, some slightly more rare variations: "How-r-you-going?", "How-r you?", and I once even got something to the effect of "Howryarite?"...though I probably misheard. There has been the odd G'day said to me, but I can recall no more than two since getting here.

Further, one of the popular bits-of-advice-cum-urban-legends here in Oz is that you always check your shoes before putting them on. The point is, of course, some horribly venomous spider could very well have taken up shop in the dark recesses of your foot ware. I should make a point that at no time have I felt the need to scope out my shoes in the morning for any demonic arachnids, and hence have never bothered.

This morning, I slip my foot into my shoe and I feel something wet. I take my foot back out and notice my sock is in fact slightly damp. I lift my shoe and gaze into it, and lock eyes...with a sizable frog. It hops out to the ground, croaks, and casually hops away, pissed at the sudden eviction.

I'm simultaneously happy I didn't squish the little squatter, and at the same time...uh, that was gross.

By the way, welcome to the filler material...

Soundtrack: Can't (Halloween) by Scarling.

I leave Home Valley Station, cross the Pentecost River...

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(still an enthralling experience but it has unfortunately lost a bit of its novelty) and traverse the final stretch of the Gibb River Road, the last 80 kilometres or so from El Questro now completely sealed. I spend some time in Kununurra finding a glass shop that can replace my windscreen sooner than later because although I have a contingency plan if I need to spend the night here in Kununurra - and I should point out it is a lovely little lake-side town to spend time in if I did - I'd prefer to stick to my itinerary and continue east today if possible. There are only two glass shops in town, and thankfully one of them takes in my beaten truck immediately and drops me off in town to do some shopping while they perform the work, and picks me up afterwards. I'm back on the road by early afternoon.

My last stop in town is to fuel up before hitting the Victoria Highway. After paying for my fuel, I wander back out and find the motorcycle guy I helped back on the road to Mitchell Falls filling up his Kawasaki. What are the odds? Apparently very good.

Soundtrack: Chris Hardwick.

The Savannah Way is a designated and promoted tourist route of roads that connect Broome on the west coast to Cairns in Queensland on the east. It accesses several national parks and other attractions, and has several optional alternate routes along the way depending on type of vehicle, itinerary, and desired destinations. I've technically been on the Savannah Way since Broome as the Gibb River Road makes up the northern alternate section connecting Broome to Kununurra, the southern route being the sealed Great Northern Highway. I'll be primarily following the Savannah Way for the next several days until almost reaching the Peninsula Development Road leading up the Cape York peninsula.

And no complaints; I drive another two hundred or so kilometres today along the Great Northern Highway enjoying the noble hillsides and sporadic ornamental forests, the heights and thickness of both increasingly elaborated by the growing shadows as the sunset approaches behind me. I remember this stretch from my first trip; it is truly gorgeous.

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I do stop to gaze over the massive (and allegedly estuarian crocodile-infested) Victoria River from a pedestrian bridge.

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And so, in a small town called Timber Creek, dealing with a 90-minute time change forward that both screws with dinner time as well as potentially making the morning tomorrow a bit miserable, I find myself just slightly disquieted about the days ahead. I've pulled off some pretty amazing things so far but the roads to come and how well they will travel is not known. I knew what to expect in the western Australia deserts and through the Kimberly along the Gibb River Road. Now it's a bit of a rat race across the Northern Territory and the gulf region of Queensland to Cape York.

Of course, this is also part of the fun. Part of the discovery. I have plenty of time in the schedule if kismet toys with me.

I befriend a young man (if memory serves correct, 'Darren'), a drifter of sorts from Perth who travels around the north in the Dry and picks up work where he can, and just...well...drifts in between. He just completed a job back on the Gibb at Mount House and is now just relaxing with a book in the site next to me in the campground at the Timber Creek Hotel. I'm somewhat jealous, the idea of an existence that is defined solely by uncertainty, with no concerns otherwise - just him, his truck, and his swag under the stars. Simultaneously he's a bit envious of me and my tackling of what he refers to as 'gnarly roads'. A friendly and good spirit, someone I spend a bit of time with at the hotel bar talking about Australian Football before he drifts away and joins a pool game.

On the way back to my campsite I'm stopped by an Aboriginal woman - a few Aboriginals have been loitering around the outside of the bar since I arrived in the late afternoon. She is clearly drunk or otherwise, and asks where I'm from. I respond with Vancouver, and it isn't clear if she understands exactly where I mean. She introduces herself as a "local...born and raised", something that could be interpreted as pride in this even though the term 'local' is frequently used by whites in a less than endearing tone. She seems friendly enough through her slurred words. But any possibility of deeper understanding is discarded when she looks at me and asks in pretty much a single word "gota-any-booze?", and when I respond with no she's immediately done with me with a dismissive wave of the hand.

As Bill Bryson cited some Australians in his seminal travel novel "In a Sunburned Country": "It's a problem."

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The sun respects the time-zone shift and doesn't come up until after 7am so when I finally crawl out of bed I don't feel as bad about any commotion I make packing up.

I say farewell to Darren (?) and just before leaving unfurl my dollar store Canadian flags and place them on the dashboard. It's Canada Day...for me. You folks back home still have a few hours to go.

I head down the highway for a few kilometres and turn south at the Buchanan Highway that along with being one of the many alternate routes along the Savannah Way will provide a short cut to the Stuart Highway, saving me several hundred kilometres. The road is dirt of course, and despite the obligatory warning signs at the entrance it is a fairly good road. The corrugations are what I would call at this point "bitch, please!" corrugations, but the road surface is topped with a layer of very loose gravel and due to the time of day and the colour of the road, it is impossible to see the numerous holes and dips with any warning and this keeps the temptation to hit the accelerator at bay.

Soundtrack: When the Wolves Return by Ego Likeness. And David Spade.

This road is absolutely magnificent, I'm quite glad I chose it. My drive is decorated with red-rock escarpments, serene creek crossings (the odd one not completely dry) and passages through green desert groves. The highway leads down through the wide Jasper Gorge...

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...and back out into rolling flatlands of Northern Territory Outback. Past the mountain range, the road improves dramatically.

At the intersection of the Buchanan and Buntine Highways at a place called Top Springs I stop at the roadhouse to see about lunch. Upon entering the shadowy building, I find no one attending it. There is (fresh?) deep-fried goodies in the heat tray, so I know it is technically open for business, but after five minutes of gazing around the empty store/bar with no one investigating the obvious noises I make, I give up and head back onto the road and make a sandwich by a creek-side a few kilometres down the track.

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I reach the historic Daly Waters Pub by early afternoon, thankfully, because this place is packed solid. Luckily, I don't require power, because that part of the campground is bursting at the seams.

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When I check in I make a booking for their classic "Beef and Barra" barbeque ("steak and fish" if you are wondering) and the only time slot available is 8pm. This leaves me with several hours to waste. I enjoy a pint of beer - because I'm at the Daly Waters Pub - and then wonder what to do with myself. I can't hang out at the pub all day - by myself, because by the time my dinner is served I'll be shit-faced - likely still by myself. So I quietly make a small stand for my Canadian flag out of rocks and duct tape and hang out by my truck, reading.

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In my mind, I had concocted a flimsy plan to visit this quirky Outback hub and celebrate Canada Day, possibly even evoking some brotherly spirit at the pub. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Today is also "Territory Day" when the Northern Territory celebrates the anniversary of self-governance that arrived on July 1, 1978. Suffice to say that charging into the pub and hoisting my little red and white flag by jamming it into an upside-down plastic cup or whatever would not likely have the effect I was hoping for, and in a word would rather be an ignorant act of foreigner "douchbaggery". Instead I eat my dinner, enjoy the live music (noting that Outback Australians seem to love Johnny Cash!) and hang out and watch the fireworks display with the other patrons and staff at the front of the pub. Perhaps not the cross-continental festivities I had misguidingly imagined, but I do get my fireworks.

Happy 150th Canada Day / 39th Territory Day, everyone.

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I don't necessarily want to say that the campground behind the Daly Waters pub is the worst campground I've stayed in so far this trip...but it pretty much is. In the park's defense, it isn't as though they tout a top-notch camping experience - it's more like a permanent back-country music festival. The park is so packed in some areas I wonder how people are getting their doors open, and even though I was fortunate enough to get a relatively wide-open area to myself on the fringes of the dirt overflow lot, the wafting acrid smell of the septic field is the price I pay. The icing on the cake - and again, not the park's fault - is that the already very weak cellular signal in the area completely disappears in the morning just as I'm about to call home. It never comes back, so I don't get to hear the voices of my favourite people back home. I'll have to do without until the next time, which is...well, I have no idea.

Soundtrack: Wake Up by Collide. Followed by Maria Bamford.

I set out east on the Carpentaria Highway, the southern alternative route of the Savannah Way; the northern primary route travels east from Katherine through Roper Bar before meeting up with the Carpentaria at Cape Crawford (which by the way is a curious name for a town that is land-locked by several hundred kilometres).

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The scenery is striking; I can appreciate the appeal of travelling the Savannah Way in its entirety. From the Stuart Highway, the first four hundred or so kilometres are mostly sealed road, the surface varying in width between full two-lane highway and narrow strip of bitumen up the middle of gravel. I encounter several roadwork areas still repairing the damage after the wet season. I stop in Borroloola at a small park beside a river for lunch and meet a nice couple travelling the other way from whom I gather advice on good places for over-night stops on the road ahead. The gentleman also, after learning of my route, strongly advises that I take a detour south after crossing into Queensland to Lawn Hill National Park, since I'll be close and it is apparently spectacular. Not the first time I've heard this advice, so it is definitely worth consideration.

The Wollorang Road from Borroloola returns to dirt, wide and slightly rough. Both the forest and the air around me becoming more tropical with each kilometre - wide, flat-leafed vegetation and palm-trees accompanying the increasingly stiff humidity.

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After a few more hours I start checking out all the make-shift camping areas set up on either side of each river crossing, of which there are many along here. Some are small clearings perched above a still-flowing river, others are flat areas of sand right in a dry or mostly dry bed. Many of these sites are occupied already, which is not necessarily a bad thing but I would definitely choose an empty site given the chance.

As the sun starts to hang low in the sky behind me I pull off at one of the more popular sites (at least according to my camping app) above the larger Calvert River crossing to find it surprisingly empty. The evening is still young and I could end up sharing the spot, but for now it's all mine.

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While gathering firewood I surprise a small kangaroo who hops out of the bushes and away...and it is unclear whose heart had to withstand the bigger stress test.

By after dinner no one else has invaded the site so I sit by my campfire playing guitar and singing, though at some points I'm not certain the fire was a wise idea; it is still bloody hot and humid even well after dark. I find myself backing away from the heat of the flames.

It's quiet now except for the sound of crickets and my typing, and the small stream running beside the campsite. I missed how awesome solo bush camps are, and I'm not sure how many more I'll get, so I'm going to soak it up for all it's worth.

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My morning drive begins with crossing through the Calvert River, and on my way up the other side I spot a couple of caravans camped on the beside the river. I wonder if my caterwauling made it to them? I suppose it's too late to care now, and besides they're the ones who have to live with the nightmares.

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I tread carefully, the road is frequented by small kangaroos, many of them still alive and not run over yet.

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There is also lots of cattle along the road. I also spot a large black feral pig but the rushed phone picture is less than quality. Also...it's a pig.

About an hour after breaking camp and 7,665 kilometres after pulling out of Perth, I cross the border into Queensland.

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Posted by stevecrow 14:14 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Return to the Gibb River Road

(...or "Spiders and Owls and...Bandicoots???...Oh, My!")

sunny 35 °C
View The Longest Road To Queensland on stevecrow's travel map.

The early hours are smothered in a low grey sky; it may have even rained a bit overnight. The ground is slowly drying from sheer will alone but the moisture in the air clogs visibility in all directions. Definitely a good time to leave Broome, by mid-day this place may very well be an unbearable sauna.

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4,843 kilometres down. Only about five and a half thousand to go.

And I found the sock. The trip can continue as planned.

Soundtrack: half an hour is spent careening down the highway towards the entrance to the Gibb River Road searching for just the right song. I skip impatiently through a playlist thousands of songs long until the right one - or at least the most appropriate one for now as patience dictates - finally starts to play. Drive by Lana Del Rey. Agreed, quite contrived but it works - and besides, the song reminds me of my younger days as an aimless and very saucy hippie girl.

If only I could record some of the conversations I pick up, eavesdropping, on UHF channel 40. I have a difficult time understanding what is going on, what with the accents and the shitty speaker, but one conversation I'm graced with goes something to the effect of "....garble garble...the black button on the brake...garble garble...looks *fine* in that dress...garble garble garble...Billy?...Billy?...static. ...Fuckin' hell...."

I hope Billy is ok.

I pass the Roebuck Plains and the clouds part, dropping me into a brilliant and very warm Kimberly day to travel. A couple hours later I'm at the entrance to the Gibb River Road. Travelling east down the road I find it familiar but also feel that the road, once the bitumen ends, seems to be in much better shape than it was five years ago; very likely the result of both frequent grading due to the increasing influx of tourism along the route and my honed experience in much worse roads.

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Despite stopping numerous times for photos and firewood gathering, I reach Windjana Gorge National Park just after lunch. I find it, as it was the first time I came, already packed. Almost every tree in the campground has camping rigs clinging to it for shade. I find a vacant spot under a modest gum tree and get out to find, to my amusement, that I'm parked in the exact same place I was when I stayed here in 2012.

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After lunch, I head off to tackle the gorge, determined to see as much of it as possible, still angry at myself for wasting so much of my time here on my previous visit searching for my sunglasses that I dropped.

And would you believe...that I find my sunglasses???

I hope not. That would be pretty foolish to think that was even remotely possible. Unicorns aren't real, either. (Leprechauns are, though).

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I explore the first part of the gorge, and take pictures of the lazy freshwater crocodiles slumming it on the shore line. I then head down the trail, hoping to this time follow it to the end - or at least as far as I can go.

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At one point the trail branches at a long sand bar that I slowly trudge along, admiring the tropical vegetation and unearthly black and red cliffs lining the gorge. At the end of the sandbar I shimmy back up the bank and rejoin the trail and head further up the gorge.

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The trail starts to get rough - washed out in places, overgrown in others. It becomes difficult to even follow the right trail, wandering through flats of tall grass and sharp spinifex that slashes at my shins. The trail is starting to resemble some of my Outback roads.

After almost an hour of fighting a trail that becomes more aggressive and increasingly elusive, and just as I give myself five more minutes at most before I turn back, I come across an old worn out sign nailed to a post in the middle of the trail.

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It basically says that the trail is closed after the second sand bar...I assume this to be the one I walked and rejoined the trail from, and this is about a kilometre back. I must have bypassed a previous warning, and I may have wandered out of bounds. This explains a lot.

Sweating profusely from the heat, I make my way back. I intentionally timed the walk so there is very little chance I'll lose daylight before exiting the gorge, but the possibility I've walked into an area I'm not supposed to be in keeps me at pace. I get back to the sand bar about 45 minutes later but find no warning sign anywhere. I suppose I'll never know if the trail I took really was closed...or just not maintained very well. A trail not well travelled, I suppose.

After sunset, dinner, and fending off some minor heat exhaustion from the walk, I hunt around for an available fire pit to burn the wood I spent time and effort gathering. The fire pits here are designated concrete rings, and were mostly ignored earlier in the day when people were claiming spots because they are all out in the open. But now most of them have been circled by convoys of vehicles. I look over to one that I had noticed earlier as not being surrounded but some people have pulled their chairs up and started a fire. But 2017 Outback Steve walks up and basically invites himself to their fire (ok, I politely ask if I can join them if I offer my wood, and they have no problem with this).

They were a lovely family from Holland (two grandparents, two younger parents, and two little ones, a boy and a girl) who emigrated to Sydney; we exchange travelling stories and I get to learn lots of cool things about Holland. I tell them about my travels through the Outback and the younger dad is amazed and perhaps somewhat jealous. Maybe I planted a seed.

Soundtrack: When the Wolves Return by Ego Likeness.

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I'm back on the road before 8am and very casually make my way up the Gibb. I found a spot on the map the evening before - a bush camp by one of the lesser known gorges, but it's small and if I get there too late the four or five usable spots will be filled and I'll have to find somewhere else for the night.

Still, I don't rush. I continue stopping for pictures, and take a sidetrack down to a gorge I have either not heard of or don't remember, called Adcock Gorge. I'm happy I did, as this gorge turns out to be quite remarkable, with a deep aquamarine pool beneath a tall waterfall pouring down a black cliffside.

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I fill up with diesel at Mount Barnett Roadhouse which is also the entrance to the Manning Gorge campground, and decide that if there is no room at my intended destination, I'll head back here. I've seen Manning Gorge but a repeat visit won't be a bad thing - it was one of my favourite gorges the first time.

I stop a few times to gather wood, and then find the turn-off, an unmarked road leading off the Gibb. The fact it's unmarked may either be a good sign as people won't notice it...or I'm not on the right road. The gps is convinced however, so I proceed (with caution...remembering she's likely still trying to kill me).

It is a semi-rough road for about three kilometres in and when I reach the end I find a small cluster of campsites tucked up by the Barnett River, and one of the sites by the river is being vacated as I drive in. Perfect timing.

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This is the Barnett River Gorge. First, I make my way up to the top of the gorge for pictures...

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...and then down to the river for a swim. I dive in and swim up the gorge maybe a couple hundred metres to some small water falls. I climb up and explore the creek and find several rapids cascading down long rocky plateaus.

I don't have my camera, so all of this is just for me.

Outback Solo Observation #4: have you ever had an entire river gorge to yourself, as though nature has given you your very own natural water park, without screaming children, uncomfortable line-ups, and no pot-bellied white middle-aged guys ruining the vibe? Well, fine...one pot-bellied middle-aged white guy.

I sit under the small waterfall for what seems like forever, just letting it pound me in the back. I have no desire to leave - no 'next thing to do' on my mind, absolutely nothing clouding or occupying my thoughts. It is an incredible feeling to not be thinking of where I came from or where I'm going, only where I am. No moment exists except the one I'm in now.

The only thing on my mind is how lucky I am to have gotten here, what an amazing place this is, and what a wonderful life (and wife!) that allowed me to find this place.

Back at the campground - if you can even call it that - I chat with some people camping in off-road trailers who have done many of the same roads I have. They are mildly impressed with what I've accomplished in only 3 weeks, and recommend I seek out some of Len Beadell's books; apparently, he was a good writer and possessed quite the wit.

The following morning, I break camp as quickly as I can. I have a very long day ahead: the trip to Mitchell Falls National Park. The way to the park starts off the Gibb River Road about 80 kilometres from where I am, and then travels north beginning as a long wide road riddled with vehicle-decimating corrugations for about 160 kilometres...and then another 80 kilometres west-ish along a narrow, winding, unmaintained road that leads to the park. I have to admit I have developed some amount of confidence with rough roads, but still I'm not taking any chances. I don't want to have to rush.

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Soundtrack: Alcubierre Drive by Psy'Aviah.

I'm thanking myself now. The road from the Gibb River Road to the Drysdale Station is 60 fairly terrible kilometres. I have taken some air out of the tyres but this is still pretty bone-rattling. Not quite as bad as some parts of the Canning Stock Route, but what this road has that the Canning didn't is lots of traffic, headed both ways, many of whom are whizzing along at a fair clip. At some of these ridiculous velocities I imagine you don't really have a useful thing commonly referred to as 'steering' (you're coasting over the corrugations so your wheels have very little, if any, contact with the ground). I putter along at a comfortable speed with some vehicles passing me like I'm standing still.

I pull into Drysdale Station to check it out, and find a beautiful little homestead with a campground, fuel, a store, and an outside restaurant/bar. I only buy a bottle of non-alcoholic ginger beer since it's only 10:30 in the morning, but make a note to perhaps stop here for lunch on the way back if it times right.

I continue up the road and only a few minutes later come across a very large puddle in the middle of the road perhaps 10 metres long. It isn't a creek crossing, and the water is a cloudy brown and there is no way to really tell how deep it is. On the other side of the water hole there is a person who appears to be struggling with a motorcycle. I get out and lock into 4wd just in case, and then slowly start to drive right through the centre of the puddle...to find it might be really deep. Probably not deep enough to present any real challenges to my Landcruiser, but there is no point in taking any chances. I back out and inch my way along the right side until I reach the other end. Once on solid ground I get out and find that the guy with the bike is bogged about 3 metres from the edge of the puddle and can't get his bike out. It takes about 10 minutes for the two of us to haul his deceptively heavy Kawasaki out of the mud.

Once I know the guy is ok, I continue on. Some people are still driving fairly fast but I just let them pass me. Then, coming the other way, is a huge Outback Spirit tour bus - a massive tank-like 4wd 'bus'. He's blazing along I don't know how fast. And then...

SMASH!!!

The behemoth whizzes by me and in doing so fires a large rock straight into my windscreen. It hits right at the top: another couple of centimetres up and it would have missed...another few centimetres down and it may have gone right through. A huge dent shows up in the glass, tiny glitter-sized particles of sharp little windscreen shards raining down on the passenger seat. Three long cracks in three different directions radiate out from the impact site.

The windscreen needs to be replaced. The only question is whether I can drive like this until I drop off the truck or if it will need to be dealt with sooner. I'm guessing the latter - it may be drivable at the moment but it will not likely withstand another direct hit.

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I reach the turn-off to head towards Mitchell Falls National Park and after a short drive in I stop at a campground by the King Edward River and duct-tape the large crater in the windscreen for now. I'll call the hire agency next chance I get but isn't likely to happen before I leave the Gibb.

I putter along the last stretch to the park through a spectacular tropical forest along the plateau. It's a beautiful drive though rough and with no shortage of stress due to some of the on-coming vehicles Autobahn-ing the track. After more than one 'could-have-been-a-head-on' I really begin miss the desert.

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I reach the campground and pay for two nights, my only planned multi-night for the entire drive - though I won't rule out others. A wise decision: I find it took me well over 4 hours from Drysdale to get here. there was some time spent when I stopped and ate and had to apply ugly gray Reject Shop duct tape on the windscreen, but that is still a long drive. Also, the walk to Mitchell Falls is upwards of 2 hours one way from the campground, so I'll want to take that casually, and then maybe spend the afternoon relaxing...and doing laundry.

Outback Solo Observation #5: ever sat in a small warm rock pool at the top of a massive waterfall (safely away from the edge of course) by yourself at sunset with the Kimberly sky in front of you radiating with lavender and sapphire and platinum, with a vast lush green and copper below?

My fire is dying, many people have retired for the evening...when I hear a small crash beside me in the dark. I scramble for a light, finding only my phone, and search the ground, expecting to find a dingo. What I find instead is a white owl, perched on a tree in front of me. I quickly take a lousy picture on my phone, and then inch forward to look closer.

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What I find is perhaps the most evil looking owl I have ever seen in my life. They don't make them here like they do at home.

It isn't frightened of me; I step forward and quietly greet the creature. It responds with a roll of the head and the mouthing silent owl words from its beak. Evil looking perhaps, but utterly fascinating.

I step back and appreciate the moment. Not sure if it did.

It was still there when I went to bed over an hour later.

  • **

I embark from my campsite towards the falls around 7am the following morning, the air still cool-ish, or at least as cool as a Kimberly morning up here will get...meaning it hasn't quite hit 30 degrees yet.

The first part of the trail passes by the top of Little Merten Falls (little...as in 30 metres or so straight down little...) where I enjoyed the sunset from the evening before, and down to the gorge below the falls.

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Behind the waterfall is an ancient Aboriginal rock art site. Amongst the ornate drawings are handprints...captured by a person thousands and thousands of years ago. I stare at them quietly. Then make me feel very small in comparison.

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The walk continues through shady forests and then over rock plateaus, leading to another Aboriginal art site.

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As I walk I can hear the constant thundering of the tour helicopters that take visitors from the campground directly to Mitchell Falls. Odd, I think, for a supposedly eco-conscious park that highlights sacred Aboriginal sites (remembering a common aspect of Aboriginal culture is to treat these sites with respect and quiet) to not consider the impact of noise pollution on the environment. But what do I know, I've never ridden in a helicopter - it's probably really fun.

I emerge along the top of Merten's Gorge (the 'Big' falls) that cascade straight down well over 100 metres.

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Later I can hear the roar of Mitchell Falls as I approach. The trail leads through the Mitchell River - a shallow part of the stream that requires wading across. Easy enough now, but likely difficult or impossible earlier in the season when the river is higher.

I pass by the helicopter landing pad and over cliff sides, and finally arrive at the main lookout spot for the falls. And the walk, the drive, the glass shards, the potential owl hex...all worth it.

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I sit and quietly admire the falls for a while, they emit a quiet magic that helps one appreciate why this is a sacred place.

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I spend quite some time just absorbing the experience before I climb back up to the river above the falls and cool down with a swim in one of the pools before heading back along the trail. On the way, I detour back under Little Mertens Falls for a second swim in the gorge. Here I find the most unique looking spider hanging on the underside of a large rock.

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When I get back to the campsite I find it mostly empty except one vehicle right next to me that was here the night before. I hand wash some laundry, and then just sit back and relax with the entire afternoon ahead of me.

Ok...with no small amount of hypocrisy I walk back to the helicopter booking booth and inquire about rides. It's not as if me boycotting the helicopter ride will in any way contribute to them ceasing operations. And besides, I've never ridden in a helicopter before. They're probably fun.

I find one drawback of solo travel - they simply cannot accommodate a single person in any of their bookings. They do offer that I can purchase two tickets if I want. How generous of them.

Minutes later I'm hanging out under my awning and playing guitar. It is so peaceful here, apart from the distant heli-noise briefly drowning out my out-of-practice noodling. What a beautiful afternoon.

That's when the tour group arrives.

I'm in the designated tour group camping area, but had forgotten this minor detail until now. They all climb off their military-grade monster bus and spread out over the area like a virus - I suppose an unkind and unfair comparison but it conveys the appropriate image. Only moments later there are tents everywhere, the entire area occupied.

I admit that when they first started snooping around for spots I *may* have started playing louder...and much worse (if that is possible)...*maybe* on purpose. But these folks were all cool and friendly, and very aware that they were seemingly invading despite them technically having more right to this area than me and my neighbours. The people who set up their tents closest to me make sure they aren't blocking me in or in any way inconveniencing me. I don't stop playing, but I tone down the awfulness as much as I have the skills to.

On the way, back to camp after another sunset swim below Little Merten's Falls I see a furry creature hiding under one of the rocks. It is small and gray, with large black eyes and a long tail. We stare at each other for a moment before he scurries away into the rocks. At the end of the trail I consult the info board to hopefully learn what I just saw. I want to believe it was a bandicoot, because that would be awesome. It is far more likely that it was a possum. But let me believe.

I stop by the dunnie (for you Canadians, the shitter) on the way back to my site to find the most beautiful spider and web. So later, on my next visit I bring my phone and snap a picture.

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That's when I notice some legs protruding from just under the overhang. I look closer...and just when I'm about to try for a picture, I sense movement behind me.

I come face to face with my first good sized huntsman spider. It is perhaps the size of my palm - definitely larger than any spiders we have back home. I snap a quick picture, and then try to put my hand up to it so I can take a comparison photo. The beast quickly scuttles away along the wall. It is so big I *hear* it walk on the metal siding. It may be a nothing experience for an Australian, but I'm profoundly happy to have found one.

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This picture, as photos of Huntsman spiders tend to be, indulgently makes it look *way* bigger than it actually is. Honest. Also, please appreciate me sharing this, because I just erased any possible hope of my wife accompanying me on any future trip to Oz...evah!

Tonight I over-hear my neighbours trying to start their vehicle with no success; apparently their battery has bit it. I wander over and offer to jump them in the morning. Fine folk from Tazzie, and very grateful as well. So many people here in Australia have stopped to help me, I need to pay it forward.

Karma or not, the owl doesn't return.

  • ***

My alarm is the sound of dozens of tour group people tearing down their tents, at around 5:30am.

Knowing I have to deal with the long road back to the Gibb I swing into high gear as well, and I'm pulling up and helping my neighbours with a jump start around 7am. Once they are good to go, I'm on the road and heading back down.

I'm partly thankful I have to take this route again, because it really is gorgeous. I pass a grader in the opposite direction on the way, after which the road gets much smoother. If only he had started work two days earlier.

Just before crossing the King Edward River close to the intersection with the road leading back to the Gibb, I encounter my first snake, under very unfortunate circumstances. For the snake, not me. It is mid-sized, and black with coloured rings. I'm not sure exactly what colour the rings are...or were...because I only get a brief glimpse of it as it slithers across the road...right in front of me. I hope I didn't flatten it, but I have my doubts.

I don't really see any attractions to see today, instead I'm concentrating on the few hundred kilometres I want to cover by sunset.

By late afternoon I make my way to a lookout, just west of my destination, that overlooks the Pentecost Valley.

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And the lookout has cellular service from Wyndham almost 200 kilometres away. This allows me to email the hire company about the windscreen so that perhaps they can arrange something for me in Kununurra tomorrow. This poor vehicle...

I check into Home Valley Station, and struggle with the choice between the main caravan-park style campground - close to all the amenities - or the river-side bush-style campsite about 4 kilometres down a side road. I ultimately choose the former and decide to spoil myself with a shower.

I also make a booking at the restaurant, an outdoor Country-Western-themed bar and grill with live country music. I could do without the American-ese country-western, but I appreciate not cooking and cleaning for the evening.

While I sit at my campsite waiting for my reservation time at the restaurant (*bookings essential*) a friendly bloke from the next site wanders over and offers that if I haven't eaten dinner yet to join them since they have some extra food. Extremely grateful, I decline, but I continue to be amazed at how friendly and neighbourly this country can be.

I finish this entry as the warm evening wind begins to pick up. Once again, as I did many years ago, my heart is heavy at the thought of leaving the Gibb River Road. But the time has come for new places and new discoveries.

Like if, sometime tomorrow, I'll have a new windscreen.

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Posted by stevecrow 05:22 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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