Darwin to Alice

Thursday 16 August to Saturday 18 August – Corroboree Billabong

We packed up (a big job after a full fortnight in the one place) and drove out along the Arnhem Highway to Corroboree Billabong. This beautiful place is part of the Mary River Wetlands system, upstream of Shady Camp. It consists of a number of interconnected billabongs, usually around 3 metres deep but up to 10 metres deep in places. Camping is possible on either side of the system and accessed by a 20km stretch of good gravel from the highway.

We arrived to find an excellent concrete boat ramp, a fleet of houseboats for hire and a steady stream of boats launching and retrieving. The word in the local papers was that Corroboree was fishing well for barra in the 60-75cm range with the water starting to warm up. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was less exciting with possible rain forecast for Saturday. We found an excellent shady camp site far enough back from the water to be safe from crocodiles and set up. We assembled the boat on the trailer but delayed fishing until the next day. As night fell, the insects moved in. Being part of a huge wetland system, the mossies were rife. We quickly found that the repellent and mossie coils would not cope. They went up the nose, in the ears and got stuck in the corners of the eyes. Under very trying conditions, we erected the screen enclosure and locked ourselves in. The noise of the insects hammering against the screen trying to get to us was bad enough. It seems as though the drill will be to prepare tea before dark and then stay behind screening for the night.

Friday morning greeted us with dull overcast skies and the distant rumble of thunder. The temperature had dropped to a level that puts barra to sleep. Despite this, we launched the boat and spent a very pleasant morning trying hard to wake them up. There were lots of others out and about as well and no one was doing any better than us. The only fish caught was a 45cm sleepy cod, a northern species of freshwater gudgeon. As the name suggests, it fought like a paper bag. The fish guide gave it the thumbs up for edibility so we kept it for lunch. By the time we got back to camp, the chance of rain looked much higher. We cooked up the sleepy cod, It proved to have very white flesh in big flakes and was quite tasty, certainly worth eating.

By the afternoon, the rain had set in, light at first and causing little nuisance because of the lack of wind. We drove back to the highway to get some generator fuel at the roadhouse and found stretches that varied from becoming slushy to bone dry. The rain increased to the point where we were mopping up around the place and getting thoroughly fed up. This was our second lot of top-end unseasonal rain. In fact, we were getting off lightly, with some areas receiving 25mm. The system that caused it then drifted South East and caused extensive flooding and damage down in Southern Queensland.

We decided to stay on for Saturday and give everything a chance to dry out. Back on the billabong, the sun had brought out all the wildlife. The birds were in great numbers and we marvelled at the magpie geese and jabiru storks. The warm weather was encouraging the crocs too, and we realised just what a large population the billabong supports. At one point, I wanted to navigate down a narrow channel to get to another billabong. The channel narrowed to about 4 metres across but right on the point was a crocodile of equal size. In a boat that measures only 3.1 metres, we took the safety option and turned around. Another time we saw a bloated wallaby travelling at speed cross the top of the water. The explanation for this strange sight proved to be a crocodile carrying his prize away to be consumed.

The fishing proved no better than the previous day. Despite the lack of barra, the experience of fishing Corroboree is not to be missed. The scenery and wildlife is incredible. I’m not sure I’d hire a houseboat here though, with the insect issue at night and the hesitation at sitting our on a low balcony at night with the crocs. All in all, a place we would both like to come back to.

Sunday 19 August to Thursday 23 August – Katherine

Leaving Corroboree, it was a quick run back down south to Katherine. We booked in for the third time to the Riverview Tourist Park. We always stay here because it is shady, comfortable and is only a stroll out the back gate to the hot springs. In reality, it is a short ride to the hot springs because we always ride our bikes. This is an effortless cruise downhill to the springs (I actually hit 45 kph one time) but a low-gear grind back to the top of the hill on the return.

We had Monday to ourselves and occupied ourselves by taking an extended bike ride around the river, through the Low Level Park and across the far embankment to re-cross the river at the old railway bridge. Katherine is very well provided for in terms of cycle ways and we have made excellent use of them. On Wednesday, we made arrangements to have the car serviced at a dealer some 7kms from the camp. Again we made use of the cycle ways and cycled to and from the car place to drop off and pick up.

Tuesday and Thursday were work days at Clyde Fenton Primary School. We had a Year 6/7 class. The staff welcomed us back from our previous work there and we knew our way around the school so we quickly settled in. The class was a terrific group of kids and once again we thoroughly enjoyed our time teaching. The kids certainly seem to appreciate that they are getting two teachers and we find it both easy and enjoyable to work together. We seem to instinctively know when the other should take charge and balance the load very well. We have plans to return to Katherine next year and look forward to working at both Clyde Fenton and MacFarlane again.

Friday 24 August to Saturday 25 August – Katherine to Alice Springs

We spent three days driving south on the Stuart Highway, stopping briefly at Larimah to look at an interesting museum reflecting the tiny town’s past as a communications and rail link. Another diversion was the Tennant Creek Overland Telegraph Station, a spectacular collection of buildings preserved in near original condition and displaying the lonely life of the telegraph operators. We had hoped to find some photographic record of the telegraph operators during WWII since my Father had been stationed there during the war. Alas, this aspect of Tennant Creek’s history seems to be overlooked and we found nothing save a few photos of troops in transit.

Another amazing place was the Daly Waters Pub. This incredible building was at one time an international flight terminal for QANTAS. It is hard to imagine the most well-heeled of travellers soaking up the ambience of the place as it was then. Now however, it is a priceless treasure. It contains an extensive collection of memorabilia from the thousands of travellers who have passed this way, including bras, undies, thongs, credit cards, passports, money, medicare cards….you name it and it’s there. I went off to the loo for a pee and was surprised by the sight of a young bloke painting the walls. He ignored me while I did the business before dryly saying “They say that a man who paints the toilet is a shithouse painter.” This comment seemed to sum up the whole place. We did a very unusual thing for us and had a beer before driving off for the next leg of our journey.

We spent two nights on the road, one at the magnificent Devil’s Marbles. I had heard from other travellers that these were a disappointment but we followed the advice of the guide books and ensured that we stayed overnight in order to catch both the sunset and the dawn over the rocks. It proved to be one of the highlights of the trip. The formations are amazing, not as big as many of the tourist promotions suggest but possessing a very changeable beauty as the light changes. Once again we got the bikes out and spent the afternoon riding amongst the numerous granite formations. The night time temperature is starting to drop once again so a camp fire kept us happy into the evening.

Sunday 26 August to Tuesday 28 August – Alice Springs

We reached Alice around noon on Sunday. With camp set up. We headed into town to explore. The place was rather quiet, being Sunday afternoon but there was sufficient open to keep us interested. Alice is much bigger than I had expected and seems to have all facilities one would require. The central CBD is certainly dominated by Aboriginal Art Galleries, mostly staffed by distinctly white staff. We found a number of aboriginal families sitting on the central grassed areas offering paintings that they claimed as their own and after some inspections and negotiations bought a small painting as a memento.

On Monday, we explored Alice further and took a trip out into the East MacDonald Ranges to Emmas Gap and Jessie Gap. Both were interesting features but after nearly four months of gorges we are a bit “gorged out”.

Tuesday morning we had planned as a trip highlight – hot air ballooning at dawn. This meant getting up at 4:30 to be ready for a 5am pick-up. The recent minimum temperatures of 1 or 2 degrees had us worried but luckily the weather had warmed and we could expect a very comfortable 6 or 7. With several layers of clothing and a beanie each, we waited out the front for the bus.The trip had two options; the half hour flight or the one hour flight. We figured half and hour of floating away with little to no control was enough. Each balloon was capable of carrying 16 passengers and a pilot in a segmented wicker basket. The bus arrived towing a trailer with the basket aboard and the balloon stuffed into a large canvas bag. Once out into the desert, the pilot launched a couple of helium filled balloons fitted with LEDs to track the wind before selecting a launch site. Then it was a matter of setting up the gear and inflating the balloon. I got the job of holding the balloon up in the air until the hot air would support itself. The heat from the burners was welcome at first but before long I started to feel like a crumpet. Once the balloon reared overhead, the pilot called for “all aboard” and we clambered over into the wicker basket. Thankfully, it was still dark because I don’t think the sight of lots of ballooning newbies spilling over into the basket was all that inspiring. Christine and I were still wondering what was next when I suddenly realised that we were off the ground and moving away.

The flight and the sight of the approaching dawn was amazing and justified the whole experience. We looked out over Alice Springs and the East MacDonald Ranges as the balloon drifted away at a lazy 10kph. The burners continued to lift us up to around 2000ft before the descent commenced. The pilot was in constant radio contact with the bus and as we drifted North-West and descended, he directed the bus along tracks, through gates and across the desert to the predicted landing site. They had obviously done this before because everything went smoothly, although the 10 metres drag across the ground on landing was interesting. Once down, everyone was pressed into service to deflate the balloon and pack things away. Once done, we headed off to a bush camp site nearby where a sumptuous champagne and chicken breakfast awaited. This was a never-to-be forgotten experience and one that I would recommend to all. What a blast!

With breakfast over, we broke camp and hit the road again, heading West to the West MacDonald Ranges.