Quiet before the storm

June 1st, 2017

I wait and I watch and I wonder what’s gonna happen as them dark thunderheads gather mass and start moving. In my direction. “Brace for the storm” they say. Sure, thinks I. But what’s the point? Avoiding the storm makes as much sense as hoping my comfort zone is gonna support me through whatever life is gonna throw at me. Better to learn how to survive it, for in surviving it comes learning and an ever-expanding comfort zone.

In just over a week Ram arrives in Darwin. There’s as much trepidation as there is excitement. Not sure what to expect. It’s been a hard year. She struggling against time apart as much as I struggle against the onslaught of a settled life quite possibly in a culture that’s enshrined boredom as the prevailing lifestyle. Add the Wall we hit whilst I was in Bunaken, mix it with her commitment to self-development by going to the Hoffmann Q2 and me being confronted by just how stubborn my intransigence is, it’s gonna be interesting.

First up though. To store Bike in a Box once it arrives I’ve rented a small storage unit at U Store It along the Stuart Highway twenty kilometres from Downtown Darwin. For the last few days I’ve been killing time in the ubiquitous Dingo Moon Backpackers waiting for it to arrive. Today is the day.

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Bike in a Box, and my U Store It unit.

Self-storage facilities are not inspiring places to hang around. Long low identical units with shuttered entrances surrounded by black asphalt. The truck bringing Bike in a Box should be here around 0700. Thus am I here at 0700. Shortly after a Toll Transport truck arrives. Unfortunately it does not have a pallet-trolley which makes getting the 167 kilograme, 1m3 behemoth that is Bike in a Box into the unit somewhat difficult. I’d specifically requested a pallet-trolley. The driver considers my dilemma. It’s pretty obvious to him a pallet-trolley is a necessity. Following a quick call to dispatch he and I drive to the industrial landscape of Farrar, meet another Toll delivery vehicle, get a pallet-trolley plus some agricultural chemicals and return to U Store It.

Pallet-trolley or no pallet-trolley, there’s no way to actually get Bike in a Box into the storage unit because of a sizeable concrete lip between the asphalt and the unit itself, and the narrowness of the entrance.

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At least it’s a rectangle shape for a rectangle hole. Now, how to get it in?

After Mr Toll disappears I consider my plight as Bike in a Box sits tantalisingly smack in front of Unit 121 with no way to get it in there. Dreamer and Zi-Biddi and the rest of the Team are here because I am to Epic. Therefore they cannot remain in the Box. Takes me an hour and half to go through the remnants of my life in Australia circa thirty years ago, and kept for those thirty years by Warrick, a somewhat estranged friend I really should do more to keep in touch with. And all my camping gear and work out what I need for a trip up the Cape York Peninsular, and load it into the rear of Scott’s Beast.

03 June 2017

Scott’s huge Patrol rumbles along the Arnhem Highway indifferent to my mood. I’ve a week before Ram arrives I’ll return to Jabiru, unload Dreamer et al, load up on camping gear before returning to meet her. On the way I’m going to check out Rockhole and Shady Camp. With such names it’s impossible not to conjure up certain mental images. I mean, what can possibly be at Rockhole or Shady Camp? Only one way to find out.

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What could possibly be at Rockhole and Shady Camp? Only one way to find out

Rockhole is more huge billabong. Not a rock to be seen. It oozes crocodile potential. The camp site is dusty and dry and largely bereft of decent shade. I decide to gamble on Shady Camp.

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Rockhole. Not a rock in sight

Shady Camp indeed has shade but little else of interest unless you have a boat and are keen to fish. The authorities are repairing the barrier that once existed naturally, separating upstream freshwater from downstream tidal salt. The absence of the barrier is changing the riparian habitats as brackish tidal waters make their way far further upstream than previously, jeopardising the freshwater habitats. Consequently it’s a huge construction site and hardly aesthetic. A few hardy long termers are well set in the large camp site. Most have enclosed awnings and even large mosquito-net tents replete with tables and chairs inside them. I’m getting a bad feeling as to why.

Darkness descends as I’m eating my meal, and with it thousands of tiny vampires eager to gorge on soft human blood. Mine. By habit I’m a fast eater but tonight I break all records and dive into my tiny tent to escape the blood-bath.

Two hours later when the dusk onslaught dies I emerge and make my way to the barrier where I’m told crocodiles and barramundi are in abundance. A couple of hardy fisher-people so thoroughly wrapped up against the vampires that they’d give the cold-adverse Spanish in the Arctic a run for their money are trying their luck. The gent shines his impressive headlamp and dutifully illuminates at least three sets of orange eyes. Crocodiles lurking otherwise unseen in the dark. Dutifully he catches a small barramundi, tossing it back with practiced nonchalance. No, he says, he’s not troubled by croc-risk, claiming the shallows of the barrier extending a couple meters before plunging into the depths reduces the risk of ambush. The vampires are still in abundance so I retreat again to my tent and sleep.

04 June 17

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Friendly Australian fencing. I try to imagine which person has the job to monitor the CCTVs that, apparently, are hidden in bushland bereft of human infrastructure like buildings

Thirty kilometres from Jabiru I pull into Marmaluka wetlands, one of the premier bird-watching wetlands that’s easily accessible in Kakadu National Park. a platform provides great viewing, but I decide on the three-kilometre walk.

As is the habit of walks in Kakadu, and Australia’s national parks in general it meanders a nice, safe and relatively boring distance away from anything worth looking at. It’s a good hundred or more meters from the edge of the wetland. Not much point in this thinks I, and I walk off the path and towards the water. Much better.

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Marmaluka Wetland

The full extent of the wetland is hidden if one remains in the sheltered platform near the carpark. It actually stretches for what must be kilometres to the south, bending round to the west. The path follows its contours but at a distance. I pick up the path again but continue to zig-zag off it to check out the wetland in more detail.

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Marmaluka’s viewing platform viewed from across the wetland, having wandered off the path

The path eventually loops back on itself and there I find the ubiquitous sign telling me I should not venture off the path or else, since Penalties Apply, I may get fined 110$ for the privilege. I didn’t see the sign earlier coz I’d already left the path.

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‘On the spot’ no less. Kinda missed the sign coz I’d already wandered off it. And why 110$?

The wetland itself gives tantalizing glimpses of just how important this part of northern Australia must be for biodiversity, and birds in particular. Despite being close, relatively speaking, to Jabiru it’s isolated from human encroachment. Aside of the three-kilometre path there doesn’t seem to be any other way to access it. It’s shear extent means that whatever’s happening in the middle happens remote and protected from human interference. And this is June, the Dry Season. In the Wet it must be humungous and that the short asphalt access road is closed suggests the wetland expands enormously.

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The wetland stretches for kilometres to the south and the west

Back in Jabiru, Scott asks me if I care for a trip to Katherine on Tuesday. The Monster, his 79 series Landcruiser needs new tires. It’s a trick question. The Beast, which I am to drive, is needed coz he can’t quite fathom what to do in Katherine without a car for a few hours in the meantime.

We are to leave early. Like 0600. Scott’s coming off day-shift, so he’s used to getting up at 0430. For him it’s a sleep in. Personally I’m not sure whether getting the Monster to the tire-shop at 0800 makes any real difference to 0900. I grumble. I like to drive when fully awake and rushed early mornings always create a heightened sense of risk.

06 June 17

0600 morphs effortlessly into 0700. A far more reasonable time.

The Monster has two and a half times as many cylinders as the Beast, and a significant 150% more engine capacity and I don’t know how much more horsepower, but it’s godda be lots. Scott does try to maintain some speed parity, particularly as it’s still pretty dark and wild beasts roam these lands at these times, the most significant of which are cape buffalo. Huge mobile mountains of animals not a lot smaller than the vehicles we’re driving. Hit one and it’s generally game over for the car. Scott’s Monster is in fact a replacement for an earlier one he wrote-off avoiding a buffalo back in 2015. He lost control and rolled. His right arm still reminds him of it.

However, gradually, inevitably he disappears in to the ever shortening shadows as daylight emerges. The maximum speed limit here is an impossible 130 kph. Mind bogglingly fast considering the narrow winding road, them wild wandering beasts and other traffic.

As I rumble into Katherine Scott calls to pick him and En-Hui up as they endure the humiliation of walking the 1500 metres from the tire-shop to the centre of town.

Katherine’s a big city, in a relative way, resplendent with many shops and … The Coffee Club, where, with a bit of careful negotiation I can actually get a decent Italianesque espresso, a good cappuccino – so long as I remember to ban the awful habit Australians have of putting sugar enriched cacao-powder all over it – and a croissant. A necessity after a two and half-hour drive.

Food and drink supplies-shopping we’ll do later, once the Monster is released. And once the alcohol shops open. This is afterall the land of alcohol restrictions. In the meantime, what to do?

My next Epic requires me to negotiate 3000 kilometres of some of Australia’s most remote roads bisecting the north end of the Gulf Country, just under the Gulf of Carpentaria. Roads with tags like The Savannah Way, and the Nathan River Road. Mostly dirt, most likely poorly kept, remote, isolated with looong distances between supplies. My only concern is water. What is the frequency of freshwater along the way?

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Step One of my Next Epic: Jabiru to Cairns, where the Cape York Peninsular road begins

In Katherine there’s a large tourist information centre. Bravely, and perhaps a little naively, Scott and En-Hui decide to accompany whilst I start digging for information. This is never a simple straight forward operation. It can takes hours, with numerous stops at different authorities.

My experiences in Tourist Information centres is not good. It’s not bad, but it isn’t good. The assumption of Tourist Information is that you are in a large 4WD +/- a trailer/caravan of varying capacity and you want to know where to pay for camping, or book a trip, or pick up a map and a dozen brochures. I’m not expecting much as I wait my turn. The attendant can tell me nothing of the condition of the gravel Nathan River Road south of Roper Bar, and even less of possible water supplies enroute. There are a number of tourist-attractions, including ‘resorts’ but it’s difficult to predict from the flat-one-dimensional maps Hema (or anyone else) produce just how many kilometres per day is realistic. Some roads are 50 kilometre a day roads. A 150 kilometre distance requires three days worth of water, fifteen kilogrammes. One hundred kilometre roads cuts that down by half. Of course, I am relentlessly warned, any water is going to be croc-water and “… yer cain’t drink it (without boiling)”. “Yes I know. I’m going to have to live with that risk” which produces unmitigated looks of shear-horror, and “I’ve a water purification system (to deal with dodgy water)”.

For road conditions I’m referred to the Road Report Website of the Northern Territory. Follow the links for the kinds of information that they provide:

  • Barkly Region, what I’m gonna be riding through:

http://www.ntlis.nt.gov.au/roadreport/obstructions-byregion.jsp#BARKLY

  • Actual road restrictions web-page. If your road isn’t on it, there are no restrictions. I’m after the Nathan River Road:

http://www.ntlis.nt.gov.au/roadreport/obstructions-atoz.jsp#n

Quite apart from the prevalent use of the word ‘motorist’ and reference to ‘corrugations’ and ‘bulldust’ there is very limited information of any use to a cyclist. Only ‘road-closed’ and ‘inaccessible’ or something similar would be relevant.

The road I’m chasing, the Nathan River Road is not mentioned and therefore no restrictions apply. It’s Open in other words, but that tells me nothing of what to expect. Hundreds if not thousands of meters of sand and perhaps bull-dust? Rock hard pan? Lateritic pebble gravel? All of the above?

Hema maps put the names of stations on its maps, the huge pastoral leases locking up Australia into mini-fiefdoms subjecting any trespasser to severe penalties. The trick therefore is to not be a ‘trespasser’. My best source of information I figure will be to call them. Everytime I’ve done this in the past, I’ve always been welcome. Warned of course, called ‘mad’ naturally, but welcome.

Tourist Information do come out with a gem though. “Why not talk to Parks and Wildlife? They have Ranger Stations along your route. They should be able to help. They have an office just up the road” and point it out on my map.

Twelve hundred meters. Fifteen minutes. Walk. Scott and En-Hui look at me in horror: walk! Yes, walk. It’s twelve hundred meters, you’ll make it.

I’m after very specific information: Which bodies of water are permanent, and fresh. Local Heroes along the route will have this information. They roam their lands so often they know all the spots. My challenge is get in touch with such a Local Hero.

Parks and Wildlife give me contacts to a ranger station along the Nathan River Road, but can otherwise only provide limited information. It’s a start though. Scott and En-Hui lounge outside patiently awaiting me.

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Selfie antics as Scott and En-Hui wait for me outside Parks and Wildlife

We wander back into town, pick up the Monster and spend an hour or so at Katherine’s Hot Springs. There must be a significant geothermal system under much of the Top End.

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The source of Katherine’s hot springs

Hot springs stretching from Lorella Springs a good 1000 kilometres to the south, through Mataranka a hundred kilometres south of Katherine, to Berry Springs two-hundred and eighty kilometres north west and even to El Questro twelve-hundred kilometres west in Western Australia. Surely some energy expert must have assessed its potential to provide geothermal energy. Surely.

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It’s a pleasant way to spend a few hours. Although hot springs in a hot place isn’t really necessary

Shopping, then an evening drive back to Jabiru where Scott and En-Hui had a near miss with a couple of roaming buffalo near Moline.

A full day in Jabiru before heading to Darwin. And Ramona, a full twelve months since we last met.

 

Max

Jabiru, 08 June 2017

 

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