Cairns to Darwin

Around Australia

Chapter 4

We are ready for the start of stage two of our journey..Cairns to Darwin.
Our friend Mark Polley has joined us in Cairns for this leg of the trip. He eyes our seasoned legs warily and pumps himself up mentally for the challenges ahead. We have to get our legs going too after several weeks off the bike.
After a day’s preparation stocking up with food and tuning the bikes we are off. Our first challenge is the road to Kuranda. 8ks of gut busting climb and Mark’s initiation into the joys of BOB trailer towing. We reach the top. “My legs are cramping” says Mark. Just quietly mine aren’t too flash either.
We decide to call it a day at Davies Creek a little further on. We enjoy the swimming and relaxed camp to start our trip.
Next day we pass through Mareeba and then Dimbulah enjoying the lovely rolling countryside.

(Pt1) Cairns across the Cape

Giant Croc, Normanton, Qld. 3/7/00
Giant Croc, Normanton, Qld. 3/7/00

Stopped at Emu Creek, 100k done for the day. Camped under the road bridge, another nice if a little unusual spot.
Then it’s on to Chilligoe. Vicky at the general store chats with us, watching with bulging eyes as we absorb copious quantities of coke. She tells us of a nice camp by the river. We ride down and immediately agree, setting up in the shade and enjoying a lovely dip in the river with the sun beating down on our backs.
Next day we check our the caves and old smelter around town and do a final stockup at the store. Poor Vicky has had her dog poisoned overnight.
From here on it’s all dirt and no more towns till we get to Karumba (570k away) on the other side of Cape York peninsula.

The countryside changes from rolling hills and ranges to rocky outcrops and eventually is flat. Plenty of trees around and the road is fairly smooth. Traffic is ultra light, maybe six vehicles a day.
We space our camps so as to stop at the rivers…typically 60k to 100k apart. The rivers are lovely. Clear water, lovely shade and usually we have it all to ourselves. Mark and Gaye are cooking damper most afternoons. A gastronomical delight that we all look forward to. With the clear sunny days and the clear starry nights we are in heaven.

(Pt2) Across the Cape to Burketown

Waiting for pedestrians to cross
Waiting for pedestrians to cross

Stopped to have a chat to Bruce and Lofty. Bruce is a truck driver doing the supply run from Cairns to Kowanyamma aboriginal settlement. A genial guy he tells us of the road ahead including water availability. He had been driving in the area for 35 years. He points to a chip on his bullbar, “hit a horse, his teeth took that chip out. Killed him instantly. This dent up under the windscreen was caused by a cow… and this one over here…..bloody good bull bar.”

Lofty, a grader driver also joins in the conversation. He’s getting a lift back to Cairns with Bruce to give his wife some attention for a few days. Then up rolls another guy in a tip truck for a chat. A big bushy black beard. Bruce tells him “My wife left me again, she wants half of everything including the truck. But that’s ok I’ve got enough for both of us. I’ll soon retire to my few acres back in Nambour and grow mangoes”.

Lawn Hill Gorge, Qld 11/7/00
Lawn Hill Gorge, Qld 11/7/00

We move on from this group enjoying the sense of acceptance and friendliness that locals and travelers alike have given us. The road rolls on and we are mesmerised by the hum of our wheels and the endless plains. Enjoying the simple life and not thinking too much.
Seven days after leaving Chilligoe we are approaching our first town, Karumba. People everywhere, all very friendly but my sense of personal space is invaded. I need at least 500 metres around me. We adapt and enjoy a beer at the Sunset Hotel while watching the sunset over the Gulf. Very spectacular. Not much else to do unless you are into fishing.
Soon it’s onto Normanton and the giant croc. It’s 28ft long and Gaye fitted neatly into it’s jaws for the photo. A nice quiet neat town with a friendly feel. The Gulflander train was an interesting attraction.
We left Normanton heading to Burketown. Camped at Burke and Wills camp 119, their northern most camp. They were here in Feb 1861. It would have been hot, humid, wet and muddy. They must have been very determined but also a little short on planning skills.

(Pt3) Burketown to Gregory Downs

Walsh River. 250k West of Cairns. 25/6/00
Walsh River. 250k West of Cairns. 25/6/00

We are now into the Savannah lands. Flat country covered with a sea of grass. We look in all directions to the horizon, the red dirt road cutting a scar straight across it. It produces a strange peaceful sensation.

Dumb cattle… we see plenty and no matter what side of the road they are on they must always cross in front of us to escape. A large wild pig wanders across the road in front of Gaye and Mark. They stop and wait. I am coming behind and struggle to get my camera out. It doesn’t sense them as they are down wind and pigs have very poor eyesight. It finally catches on and bolts into the long grass.
We arrive at Burketown for a well earned rest. My bike parts arrive from Doctor Dick (Richard from Christies Cycles). Gaye and Mark go fishing. And we enjoy a beer at the Burketown pub. A friendly place where the locals greet you when you enter.
We head south from Burketown heading for Lawn Hill National Park. A 4wd stops heading north. “You guys should be doing the Simpson Desert Race” he says. I look more closely and sure enough it’s Ike, a long time race official. “Were training for it now” we say. He realises we are experienced Simpson Desert veterans ourselves and we have a brief chat.
We stop at Gregory Downs Pub, Sunday lunchtime. We are at the pub because they also sell ice creams. A couple of young guys in broad brimmed hats are having a quiet beer. They eye Gaye in her lycra riding gear. They probably haven’t seen anything like that around here before. She asks what the road is like to Lawn Hill. “Pretty rough” they say.
We devour our ice creams and then camp down by the Gregory river. It’s beautiful. It’s a spring fed river with crystal clear water and luxuriant growth overhanging. An amazing sight after travelling the wide open plains. We plunge into the refreshing water watched by the bemused campers along the river. They’re amazed that we have arrived on bikes. The three bikes with BOBs do cause a bit of interest wherever we go.
The damper is quickly on. The smell of it has my mouth watering. We slather it in jam and quickly dispatch it.
A lost border collie pup gets collected by a stockman on a horse from a nearby station. “Yeah I’ve been away a week and the kids must have let him out”

(Pt4) Gregory Downs to Lawn Hill NP

Mark and Ed cooling off in Lawn Hill Gorge 11/7/00
Mark and Ed cooling off in Lawn Hill Gorge 11/7/00

We leave Gregory Downs reluctantly and head for Lawn Hill NP. The road soon deteriorates and we are getting battered on the stony surface.
We are passing through Lawn Hill station and they are mustering. We see the stockmen on horses and motor bikes, and a helicopter, all working together. A motor bike twangs past us and stops on a side track a little ahead.
I pull up when I reach him. “How’s your trip going” he says. It turns out he is one of the young guys in the pub yesterday. He’s got a baseball hat on backwards(no helmet), a backpack and a headset plugged into his two way radio to keep in touch with the others. The modern day stockman.
He’s got a couple of minutes to chat. “Were rounding up the bullocks to send them to our other station for dipping, worming and fattening up etc. Then they’re off to Darwin for live export to Asia”.
“Do they get fed on the boat” I ask. “Yeh, one of us goes with them on the boat to look after them. I’m still waiting my turn”. A truck rolls up and he’s off. “Gotta go”
We vibrate our way onwards. The flat open country gives way to rolling hills and blue ranges in the distance. It looks very beautiful. We are soon in hilly country with different vegetation, the white trunks of Ghost gums providing a lovely contrast to the bright green foliage and the red rock.
Our bodies are battered and tired as 100k later we bounce into Lawn Hill NP. We have a few days here. The whole area is magic and the camp ground is lovely and shaded. The gorge is right beside. We fall into the refreshing waters washing the accumulated dust and fatigue off us. Life is good.

(Pt5) Lawn Hill to Wollogorang

Gaye on the road to Lawn Hill NP 10/7/00
Gaye on the road to Lawn Hill NP 10/7/00

Reluctantly we move on from Lawn Hill. A visit to the store at Doomadgee Aboriginal Community is deemed essential to avoid starvation.
The back route thru Lawn Hill Station is narrow and winding, a bit like riding up someone’s driveway. I get side tracked and almost do ride right up to the homestead. A stockman at the cattle yards watches me in bemusement.
Up the track we stop and talk to a couple of guys from Burke Shire Council, checking out the condition of the road. John is an Aboriginal elder, due to retire in a week or two. He gives us the rundown on good bush camps and water for the next few days. His partner is European and new to the area. He’s picking wildflowers as we talk, taking them back for his wife to identify and press.
Next day we’re waiting outside the store at Doomadgee for the 9am opening as per the sign. At 9.15am I stick my head in the door and ask what time they open. “When the staff arrive” is the reply. It all happens eventually and we wobble off laden with rare delicacies.
We’ve noticed a bike tyre track in the dust and wonder if this phantom rider is far ahead. At Hell’s Gate we discover he’s only about an hour in front. But we are seduced by the prospect of steak sandwiches and cold coke, so don’t move any further than from the bar to the shady camp out the back.
Next day we rattle our way across the border into the N.T. We arrive at Wollogorang Roadhouse and almost baulk at $4.50 for a loaf of frozen bread.
Moving on we look for a bush camp. The road gets narrow, rough and rocky, climbing thru a range where the rocks glow in the late afternoon light.
Then suddenly we are hit by the puncture goblin and all three of us have flat tyres. Three each in fact.
Multiple thorns are found and we spend a pleasant half hour sitting there picking thorns out of tyres with tweezers and a pocket knife. Ed misses a couple and watches the tyre he’s just fixed deflate again.
Mobile again we head off, wondering where on earth we are going to camp amongst the rocks and long, dry spear grass. Then we discover a gravel pit, with a large cleared area. With the fire roaring, damper cooking and glorious sunset, all is well in the world.

(Pt6) Wollogorang to Mataranka

Right: Roper River, Roperbar, NT. 25/7/00
Right: Roper River, Roperbar, NT. 25/7/00

The Calvert River is our next camp and we pretty happy to get there after bashing over countless corrugations and rocks. All is forgotten however after a splash in the water at this idyllic place.
On the way into Borroloolah we see a cyclist wobbling slowly thru the soft gravel towards us. A German guy, heavily laden and pushing into a constant SE wind. We feel positively light and frisky in comparison and are eternally thankful to be heading west with the wind behind us.
Arriving in Borroloolah we are warmly welcomed by the 4WD contingent at the local caravan park. One couple offers us fresh fish for dinner, apologising profusely for showering us with dust as they passed.
Meanwhile John(another camper) hands Ed and Mark cold beers and his wife Carmel pours me a “bucket” of wine. This renders me incapable of producing dinner although eventually we did manage to cook the fish.
We approached the next stage to Roper Bar with caution. The word was that the track was in poor condition and very rough. As we rode along we kept waiting for the nightmare to start. Instead the track wound up and down, with creek crossings, washaways and “sand pits” to add interest. Attractive scenery and fun riding, we really enjoyed ourselves.
Four days later we arrived at the Roper River causeway and found a magic bush camp. Right by the water with lush tropical vegetation, masses of butterflies and a clear rocky side channel of the river to dunk in.
Only another 40km of dirt stood between us and the Roper Highway out to Mataranka. All too soon it was over – the Gulf Track complete. We turned on to the familiar Stuart Highway, not sure if we were glad or sorry to be there. Three days of soaking in Mataranka Thermal Pool saw us emerge with suntans a shade lighter and legs eager to be spinning those pedals northwards once more……….

(Pt7) Mataranka to Litchfield NP

Top: Mataranka Falls, NT. 29/7/00 Bottom: Camp on Ferguson River, NT. 8/8/00
Top: Mataranka Falls, NT. 29/7/00 Bottom: Camp on Ferguson River, NT. 8/8/00
Litchfield NP, NT. 12/8/00
Litchfield NP, NT. 12/8/00

From Mataranka we rode directly to the supermarket in Katherine. It was paradise indeed and it wasn’t until I struggled out laden with $200 of supplies that I remembered we didn’t have a car. Luckily it wasn’t far to a campground and we settled in for a couple of days of serious eating.
We had a few jobs to do as well – a new bike seat for Ed as one of the rails had snapped and some welding to Mark’s Bob trailer frame (he discovered two small cracks when he washed his trailer in Mataranka).
Next up the Jatbula trail – a hike from Katherine Gorge to Edith Falls. Initially we planned to take four days, but by lunchtime on day one we’d realised that it would be criminal to hurry through this paradise. Thus we settled into a pattern of leisurely ambling mixed with plenty of swimming and long lazy afternoons spent plonked in a rockpool with cuppa and book close at hand. With the spectacular scenery and idyllic bush camps we couldn’t believe that we had it all to ourselves. Arriving at Edith falls five days later the “standing room only” crowds were a rude awakening. We asked around and found a lift back to the Gorge to collect bikes and gear.
Back on the road we found a nice bush camp alongside the Ferguson River. The thought of a soak in Douglas Hot Springs had us blasting up the road the following day. Hours were spent marinating ourselves in the water and chatting to other travelers camped there. The next day we rode in to Butterfly Gorge, an out and back 4wd track from Douglas Hot Springs.
We decided to head for Litchfield National Park via a 4WD track off the Daly River Road. This turned out to be some of the best fun riding of the trip. It was all there – sand, pea gravel, washaways and challenging creek crossings. Unfortunately Mark’s Bob trailer started making a strange noise. On investigating he discovered that the frame had snapped right through. Roadside repairs took place and with the aid of a hammer, a tent pole repair sheath and some ankle strapping tape it was soon as good as new.
We reached Florence Falls without further incident and spent a pleasant rest day veging out by the waterhole. From there it was on to Palmerston to stock up before heading out to Kakadu NP.

(Pt8) Kakadu

Top: Yellow Waters, 19/8/00 Bottom: Ubiri, 22/8/00 Kakadu NP
Top: Yellow Waters, 19/8/00 Bottom: Ubiri, 22/8/00 Kakadu NP
Gunlom, Kakadu NP. 25/8/00
Gunlom, Kakadu NP. 25/8/00

The next day we were heading for Kakadu. The head wind was a novelty after six weeks of consistent tail winds. The novelty wore off quickly however and we called it a day at a roadside stop. The Bark Hut Inn was too inviting to ride past the following day, especially the pool. Temperatures were on the rise by this time and any water to dunk in was appreciated.
That night a slightly squashed fruit cake emerged from the depths of Ed’s Bob bag and we celebrated Mark’s birthday in the usual Bourke & Wheels style. And the pub was only crawling distance away.
Finally we crossed the park boundary into Kakadu. Camped by a billabong that night we were disturbed by a young couple who came by to warn us that they’d seen a large saltie in shallow water near their campsite. As we were set up right by the waterhole they thought we might want to relocate. We immediately went off to check it out and sure enough – one large croc. We left the next morning with all limbs still attached and I suspect the young couple were disappointed to hear that we’d all slept well.
Jabiru was worth a visit just for the magnificent pool at the campground. We ditched the Bobs for a day trip out to Ubirr; unfortunately it was overrun with bus loads of tourists. However it was a terrific ride, the bike (sans trailer) felt like a Ferrari instead of a truck. By this time we were getting heartily sick of the crowds of tourists, particularly the backpacker variety. Actually tour groups can be useful if you stop next to where they’re having lunch and look really hungry.
We spent ages at the Bowali Visitor Centre which was quite interesting. The air conditioning certainly worked well as we shivered through a video and slide show.
An early start to Nourlangie Rock was rewarded – no tourists! This was a magnificent place and one of the highlights of Kakadu. It was good to be able to spend some time contemplating the artwork without having to jostle for space and peer over peoples shoulders while being forced to listen to the mindless drivel of tour guides (we weren’t that bad were we?!).
Early the next morning we went bird watching along the boardwalk at Yellow Waters. The lagoons and waterways looked amazing in the soft pinkish glow of dawn. We watched a sea eagle feeding it’s chick in a nest near one of the viewing platforms. One croc was a monster, the sight of it casually slithering up on to a nearby bank filled me with fascinated dread.

(Pt9) Kakadu to Darwin

Leaving Yellow Waters we moved on to Maguk. The waterfall and rockhole here was paradise for hot and dusty riders. We were entertained by the daredevil backpackers competing to hurl themselves off the highest point of the surrounding rocks.
Gunlom was another magic spot. We spent some time here wandering from the huge lower pool to the rockholes above the falls.
Eventually we headed out to Pine Creek and back on the main highway. On a side trip to Umbrawarra Gorge we discovered a great camping spot at Copperfield Recreation Dam. We then took the Dorat Road route to Adelaide River and happily partook of the magnificent barramundi buffet on offer at the pub.
All too soon we were speeding along the bike path into Darwin. A final photo session on the Esplanade and it’s all over. The next stage means parking the Bobs and finding a job for 6 months through the wet season. Somehow it just doesn’t have the same appeal.
It’s Thursday and the sunset market is on at Mindil Beach. Sitting there sipping bubbly we watch the sun glow red as it descends over the sparkling sea. It’s a fitting way to celebrate the finish of one stage of our trip and the beginning of the next.
PS: Despite the problems with Mark’s BOB trailer frame we remain convinced that Bobs are the only way to travel. We are happy to report that the BOB people are standing behind the lifetime frame guarantee and Mark’s trailer frame has been replaced. After 10,000km (and some diabolical terrain) our Bobs remain intact so we guess that Mark’s was a dud.