Up Your North – Parts 10 to 13

X

The trip from Kununurra to Katherine is about 500ks.  It takes about five hours and there is a one and a half hour time change from Western to Central Australia.  I had originally planned to break the trip with a night at Timber Creek or Victoria River, but I changed my mind to have more night in Katherine.

It was just as well – these places have roadhouse accommodation, and not much else.  They are not as depressing as Halls Creek, but nothing to write home about either.  There is some very attractive escarpment country around those two stops, and some big river views, but otherwise the trip is uneventful.

I was finishing off the Iliad read by Anton Lesser.  Since I also have him reading Paradise Lost and this was the Cowper translation, I could easily get the two epics confused – there are plenty of battles and ‘consults’.  I forget how Cowper translates the part where Priam, the father of the Trojan warrior Hector seeks out that outrageous sulk Achilles to reclaim the slain body of his son, but I recall Peter O’Toole in a frightful film saying:

I have done what no man before me has done

I have kissed the hand of the man who killed my son.

We find it remarkable that those lines were written between two and three thousand years ago.  The Bungles were being formed hundreds of millions of years ago.  God knows how long the blackfellas have been there – somewhere well beyond 40,000 years, possibly as much as twenty times the period between Homer and us.

Some people do not speak well of Katherine, but I saw nothing untoward – at least in comparison to what I had seen elsewhere.  The aborigines can get raucous at night, and I saw hardly any assimilation, but the parties appear to have achieved a kind of modus vivendi.  There is a strong police presence – and I do mean presence – and the liquor restrictions are different.  I was told that extra police were in town to crack down on those restrictions.

Sure enough, when I went to a bottle shop, there was a copper just standing outside, and casting a benign eye on some blackfellas kicking up a small ruckus down the road.  Chris at the Pine Tree Motel had told me I would be asked to produce my licence, and evidence of my accommodation.  I just bought some beer and wine and the young lady who served me waved aside my licence and room-key – she said I would have needed that for cask wine or fortified wine but not for what I had bought.  Since the copper was only ten feet away, I think she was probably right.  I could recall Frank saying that they had stopped cask wine in Broome, but that this had upset the grey nomads and done little for the blackfellas.

When I drove out to Katherine Gorge, I passed a stern sign: ‘Keep out – community access only.’  I take it that ‘community’ meant the local indigenous tribes.  If so, it really means ‘Whites keep out,’ a kind of reverse apartheid.  Putting to one side questions of legality, I could not help wondering about the wisdom of this policy.  Ironically, an ambulance was going in as I passed, and I assumed that the signed prohibition would not have extended to white ambulance officers called to attend to sick aborigines.  I daresay that if a pub put up a sign ‘Blackfellas keep out,’ we would hear a different level of noise.

Depending on your direction of travel, you might be about gorged out by the time that you get to the Katherine Gorge.  It is a short drive on a sealed road and there are quite adequate amenities – including helicopters, canoes, cruise boats, and a good café and shop.  The daily weather sign said: ‘38 and humid.  Start walks early.’  After ten minutes in the sun, I knew what they meant and started to feel signs of distress.  I retreated to the shop and museum and took in the sights by a slide show.  It featured very large and nasty snakes as well as crocs, and killed any idea I might have had of a longer walk.  I took tea in the café served by a Frenchman and a blackfella.  I even got in a gag.

I cased a ‘Happy’ takeaway joint just around the corner from the Pine Tree Motel.  I observed that it was being patronised by black locals and white copper (in a lethal looking Monaro) and that people of Chinese extraction were working the kitchen.  By the time I got there for dinner, the Chinese food was off the menu, and for the first time in my life I ate Barramundi, which is everywhere up here – with a load of batter that would bring tears to the eyes of the heart surgeon whose opinion I am waiting on.

On the first night at the Pine Tree, I had had a choose-your-own hamburger with other guests around the barbecue beside the pool.  This becomes a social hub, as at the Ibis in Kununurra.  This motel is very well and happily run, and it is a good place to stay in Katherine.  The staff are very friendly, and I like a place where the staff can take the mickey out of the boss –who is patiently used to switching on wifi into the iphones of idiots like me.

For the first time in ten days I bought a newspaper.  That was a mistake.  Then I made a bigger mistake.  I switched on the TV – and to an Australian news service.  There I saw film of two oafs – Abbott and Dutton – standing before God knows how many of our silly imperial flags and devoutly singing the national anthem as they launched a group pf Blackshirts who had sworn, apparently, a kind of oath of fealty to their uniform.  This film was being shown because that day these blackshirted clowns had already revealed themselves as serious Keystone Cops by threatening to arrest the City of Melbourne.

The road from Katherine to Kakadu is not of much interest.  There was a venerable old store called Ah Toy’s at pine Creek that somehow reminded me of Cannery Row.  There is a further roadhouse at Mount Mary, but I would not advise staying at any of these places, like Halls Creek, Timber Creek, or Victoria River, except in emergency.  The services are better in the bigger towns, and in some of these places, it is the white people who look scratchy.  The Mount Mary roadhouse featured a large set of photos of ugly looking snakes.  I bought a black long-sleeved T with a croc on it.  It should be well received when the bikies are in town.  This Mount Mary is very different to the home of those distinguished Victorian reds.

The whole road from there into Jabiluka is burnt out.  At one time, I drove through heavy smoke, and in clear sight of an unattended blaze.  That can be unsettling to survivors of Black Saturday in Victoria.

XI

Cooinda Lodge is about 50 ks south of the main tourist centre of Jabiluka.  It is very modern and swish.  At $300+ a night, it bloody well ought to be.  It is light years away from my accommodation for the previous Saturday, the famous Bungles Caravan Park, and I planned to savour the difference after an easy three hour drive, starting with a slap-up lunch.  It is only about 290 ks to Darwin from here, and I was checked in early, by a young French man and American woman, while a Russian maid called Emily finished servicing my room or cabin.

There is a cosmopolitan feeling all along the route, but one thing that you notice in the Kimberley is the genuine pride of the locals in what they have to offer.  You get it all the time, and I did not feel it as much in Kakadu.  As I remarked to Maria at Cathedral Gorge, I could recall going up through the centre in 1964 via Alice Springs, Tenant Creek and Mount Isa, and hitch-hiking back from Townsville.  I was struck by the number of people who would point out the window, and say: ‘Do you see that country there?  That is God’s country, mate.’  I thought that this was bonzer – until I found out about their politics

One thing I noticed immediately about my room – or suite – at Cooinda – beautifully built as it was (and opened by Clyde Holding) – is that it does not have a welcome book showing the services of the establishment, a phone, a writing desk, or even a chair inside – they are all outside, on your own portico, but not so easy to put inside.  Nor does the Lodge offer wifi.  The Pine Tree Lodge offered all this and more – at about one third of the cost.  Even the humble Derby Lodge Motel had a phone and wifi.  The upshot is that I am for the first time out of touch on-line – and in the dearest place.  We are I fear in rip-off territory.

The lunch was mostly self-serve and not air-conditioned.  The restaurant was said to be closed for a private function – for the whole of my stay, as I would discover.  The couple beside me had to clear their own table.

I had seen enough to cancel the third night.  I am very much in favour of the Scottish – it may be British – system of accredited ratings to tourist accommodation, where you have to offer certain facilities to get so many stars.  Since tourism is a real part of our economy, this is a matter of national interest.  I am wondering if the Territory does as good a job as W A.  Nor do I think that we as a nation have any interest in offering up products to people from our major trading partners that make us look like Hicks – or crooks.

You do not need a Harvard MBA to know that in hospitality, first impressions count.  If a relationship starts badly, because something obvious is missing, it may never recover.  Some people have no sense of business at all.  I was reminded of a Shell servo 300 meters off the highway as you come into Kununurra from the west.  It is invisible from the highway, but it has a car-wash that I later heard of by accident.  While I was getting change for the car-wash from the nice Asian man at the counter, a wizened local was giving him a razz about his boss.  It looked to me like she lets a large part of the population of Australia just cruise by without even knowing that she is there.

Well, what man has left out, God might put together.  As you come up from Katherine, there are the Edith Falls which are part of the Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge), and in the Kakadu N P, there is Maguk (Barramundi Gorge) before you reach Cooinda.  I had been there before, so from now on I was on ground that was not new.  They say that you can get a swim up there.

At Cooinda, there is the Yellow Water, and you are not far from the Jim Jim Falls turn-off, another 50+ks of brutal road, and Noarlangie Rock, which is a far more accessible site, even for wheelchairs, and which features some rock art.  I had previously gone up to the aboriginal settlement at Oenpelli where all grog is banned, and I had seen a footy match where the blackfellas were running around in bare feet kicking goals from all angles, while some white boys waddled round to make up the numbers.  The one thing that tourists should do here is to take a fixed wing flight to get a view of the escarpment, and a sense of what Arnhem Land is like.  It is as if you are seeing it as God made it.  The aerial view of the crocs in the Gulph is, for the want of a better word, impressive.

The lodge redeemed itself a little at dinner when it offered a lamb shank.  The shank was on the bar before the drink I ordered – which was a shiraz from a chilled bottle into a chilled glass, poured by a young woman from Melbourne to go with a shank ordered from a young man from Indiana.  We had quite a chat about Lincoln.  It was not until the next night that I learned that I could get a red unchilled, and a full bottle of it – after I had been unable to buy a bottle in Jabiluka – and there is not much more reason to go in there.

Breakfast was fair, but at $300+ a night, I do not expect to have to get salt and pepper in packets to apply to food on a bare unset table.  It was not nearly as good as the breakfast at Pine Tree Motel, which served the best bacon I have eaten in Australia.

After I revisited some sites, I took a pleasant buffet lunch.  When I asked the man at the bar the temperature, he consulted his iphone.  He said he was on Telstra and that they had their own signal station.  I then got reception to fix mine – something about data usage – and I was back in touch.  This is the kind of thing that should be dealt with in the introduction book, but I did notice then that they had a sign apologising for not having wifi.  And I found out that at this location they were not offering half hour flights – that is a shame, because you can see a lot in 30 minutes, and I doubt whether the extra expense is worth it.

While out, I picked up two backpackers from France, Toulouse and Lyon.  I was a little surprised that they did not know what had happened to Lyon during the Terror, or the identity of the man responsible.

There was a very scenic billabong with a jetty at the end of the path outside my cabin.  It is sternly guarded with warnings, this time in at least some other languages, about the capacity of salt-water crocs to kill people.  The nice young French man at reception told me that they used to fish off that jetty, but had lost some enthusiasm when they kept catching the eye of a seven meter croc who looked unhappy.

XII

The bad news for the AFL is that the footy grounds from Katherine to Jabiluka are for rugby.  They only get to AFL at about Darwin, and the road into there from Kakadu is what a Danish prince called ‘weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.’  That citation seems hardly apt since on my way in I was listening to Dylan Thomas sounding like an inflated Welsh cantor with a bad hangover.

The road is not in good nick, and for about 20ks I was locked between two four-unit road trains because there was no overtaking lane – which did not stop two presumably local maniacs whistling past the three of us, and the Welsh poet, when they could not possibly have known if it was safe to do so.  I recalled that Bob from Albany had given another reason for leaving driving up to the pros – ‘You never what kind of stuff some idiot coming the other way may be on.’  The risk of hoons rises as you get near a city – I did not see any dangerous driving in the outback.

Darwin is bigger than I recall it, an odd kind of cosmopolitan kitsch and tropical drop-out zone.  The main issue is the temperature – it is either uncomfortable or unbearable.

I discussed this and other things at the drop-off point for the Nissan.  I told the very relaxed and amiable guys there that it had not missed a beat, but that the launch had been at best farcical.  I noticed their eyes dilate on a couple of issues, and they had a firm view about the superiority of the Toyota.  (The precise phrase was ‘a shitload of difference.’)  We also discussed the weather conditions.  I thought I should have come earlier; they said it would be more dry, but it is hard to imagine it drier than I saw it.  The Wetlands coming into Darwin were bone dry and scarred by fire.  But if you go in the wet, the heat gets much worse, and you risk roads, including major roads becoming impassable.  I said that I did not fancy stalling in a stream and looking out for crocs.  They said that on the road to Oenpelli, which I had passed that morning, and driven through some years ago, you could see crocodile tracks getting closer to the road as the water rose to cover it.  That is the sort of thing that you would rather hear at the end a trip than at the beginning.  It would not be pleasant to become a person of interest to a croc in a place like that.

I took pot luck on the Novotel in town.  It was more than adequate and a about half the price and much better appointed than my lodging the night before.

Before dinner, I watched a documentary on NITV about an aborigine who had been very badly on the grog for many years.  He had got off it, and now holds a solo pilot’s licence.  That seemed to me to be a very large achievement.  He spoke very movingly.  The young people need to learn their culture ‘because that is their life.’  The risk is that they end up between cultures and with no tribe.  No wonder so many succumb to the empty darkness of the bottle.

I took dinner at the hotel outside on the most balmy evening I had felt the whole time away.  I joined an Irish environmental scientist from Limerick.  He was very interesting on the economic recovery of Ireland and the reversal of the great migration that is now happening – he and his New Zealand wife will certainly stay here.

Later we invited Heinz, a German from Frankfurt not far south of me in years.  Heinz had just spent about two weeks in the middle of nowhere – Arnhem Land – with some colleagues and a guide.  He regularly comes here or goes to Africa to hunt.  Hunting in Germany is much, much more upmarket than here.  It is obviously a lifelong passion for Heinz.  You could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice.  His specialty – if that is the term: ‘party trick’ would be tart – is that he uses what is called a flintlock rifle.  It is a replica of a muzzle loaded rifle in use about 250 years ago.  It is literally ‘powder and shot’ – but you only get one shot.  You need to be within 50 yards to kill one of those big bullocks, so you need to have a steady nerve, and a back-up, who presumably knows how to operate a weapon with a lot bigger calibre than my 30.06 Steyr (made in Austria, and used by Australian infantry).  I forget the calibre of the shot that Heinz uses, but I think it was at least of the order of the biggest used in orthodox bolt action rifles made today.

This was a really compelling discussion – with photos.  I have only seen passion and acquired skill like that in fly fishermen.  I remember a discussion at the Ballarat Fly Fishers’ Club when I was discussing shooting.  The guy I was talking to pointed to a member who was on the land.  He said: ‘Do you see that guy – he hunts like he fishes.  Just bloody deadly.’  You come across it in all sports.  At one casting lesson, I said ‘Who’s that old bugger over there trying his hand’.  ‘A former Australian champion, you bloody idiot.’  That’s the bloody trouble – they make it look so bloody easy.

We discussed the different kinds of lightning in Europe, Africa, and Australia.  I was amazed by it in Africa, and Heinz was attracted to it here.  Lightning is likely to be of interest to white hunters and blackfellas.  The one I had seen on TV earlier had spoken of how the land is renewed in the wet, our word for the monsoon.  He referred to the thunderstorm ‘the giver of life, the mover of clouds – it gives you life back.’  It called to mind the music of Richard Wagner in Das Rheingold for the entry of the gods into Valhalla – a dazzling invocation of tribal rite and faith.

XIII

When I did bankruptcy cases, more than forty years ago, the late Mr Justice Sweeney, with the inevitable politesse of a knight of the church, said to me on more than occasion: ‘Mr Gibson, you are too young to have seen this, but during the war, the trains used to carry a sign, ‘Is this journey really necessary?’’  The great German philosopher Wittgenstein had a recollection to the same effect in his common-place book – he thought that most bad thinking came from asking the wrong question.

You learn more from a journey than a book, and it does not make much sense to ask whether my journey from Broome to Darwin was really necessary.  (It was originally planned in the other direction, but Australian 4WD said that I could avoid the return fee of one thousand dollars if I reversed it.)  I wanted to do this trip, and I am glad that I have.  I have now travelled overland over most of Oz.  I had seen Kakadu and the West Kimberley before, but I wanted to traverse the lot.  The Bungles were a prime objective and duly became the highpoint.

But, as I heard a lady say after a walk, ‘I am glad that I did it, but I feel no need to do it again in the near future, if at all.’

Let us put to one side cruising the coast, which is very expensive, or doing an air safari, which is even more expensive.  Let us put to one side big bus tours.  Let us also put to one side those who pull vans or camp – they do it because they like it and it suits them.  From my observation, the range of sorts of people travelling this way is as wide as the range of means to do so.  For example, the bigger new vans come with all facilities, and you can get home units built into the vehicle – I am told that there is a growing trend here to follow the US model of using one of these and pulling a small 4WD behind for travel at the destination.  These people have access to social life – a communal drink – in the evenings that motels are learning to seek to emulate with the barbecue and pool.

Let us look at my model – driving yourself across the region, and staying in reasonable or better fixed accommodation.  You will be told, or should be warned, that you will need the biggest and best 4WD at least for the Jim Jim Falls, the Bungles, and the gorges off the Gibb River Road.  That raises the cost of the exercise, and what for at least some will be the worry of driving through hazards.  The rough roads also increase the risk of breaking down – I met a guy at Darwin airport who had blown two tyres on one trip to Jim Jim Falls; the second one led to a long delay while they brought in the replacement.

My base costing is shown in the original itinerary set out at the end of this book.  I varied this by reducing the stays at the Bungles and Kakadu for the reasons I have stated.  The fuel costs (diesel) were about $760.  The two flights into the Bungles cost about $1400 between them.  If you add the Itinerary costs of $6692, you get about $8800 without meals.  That is a lot of money, but a lot of it is the cost of travelling alone – the accommodation and land travel costs would be the same for a couple.

An alternative would be to base your trip around one or more hubs, and hire professionals to do the hard and dirty bits.  You could then just relax, whether at your base or on the move, and come out much better informed – and, as like as not, much more relaxed.

One variation would be to fly to Darwin and hire a cheap orthodox car to go to and from Kakadu for say three nights, and then fly to Kununurra for say four nights and then fly to Broome for say five nights – allowing for say a two night tour into the West Kimberley, and possibly a flight to the Horizontal Falls.  You would want at least a full day tour in Kakadu, and the fly-drive tour to the Bungles.  I also wanted to do the flight to the coast and Mitchell Falls, but the one day a week this was on did not fit my schedule.  You might also consider something like that schedule with a train trip from Adelaide to Katherine or Darwin, or from Perth to Sydney.

If you pursued an option like that, you would have as good a notion of the vastness of it all as someone who has driven all the way.  The roadhouses are not worth stopping at; a lot of the scenery is tedious; and you do not have to go up every gorge, or gaze upon every waterfall.

If you wanted to go that way, and narrow the focus, I would suggest cutting out Kakadu and concentrating on the Kimberley and the two main towns.  They are much, much better served for accommodation and other amenities and chances for tourists – the prices and services are so much better because of the competition – and they are in no way deficient for things to do and see.  Broome of course is a beach resort in its own right, but Kununurra struck me as being surprisingly amenable for tourists, and if you shout yourself a stay at something like the Kimberley Grand – which is much cheaper than Cooinda Lodge and much better appointed – you will have a very comfortable and relaxing stay.

If you would prefer to drive all the way, and include the Bungle Bungles or Jim Jim Falls, you will need the big 4WD with snorkel.  You should then do the following.  Work out what car you want.  I believe that the big Toyota enjoys the best reputation, but you can make your own inquiries.  Work out which company you want to hire the vehicle from.  Before booking anything, ask if they have a slot where you will not have to pay the return fee.  Hire a satellite phone for the time you will be in charge of the vehicle.  You should require instruction of at least one hour on the controls of the vehicle, the use of 4WD, and driving on the roads that you will encounter.  You should also require a demonstration of a change of tyre on your vehicle to ensure that you and the equipment on the vehicle are up to it.  Unless you go through these procedures you will not have sufficient confidence in the vehicle or yourself fully to enjoy the majesty that awaits you.  I of course did none of them.

My own view, which is that of Bob from Albany, is that there is a lot to be said for people over sixty from the city leaving at least the hard bits to the experts.  I repeat that I am glad that I did what I did, but I am also glad that I made it – and I will not be doing it again.  If you do not come to terms with the facts of life in this country – for example when swimming in the surf or driving in the outback – you might easily be worse than a bloody idiot – you might be a dead bloody idiot.  And those forms of death are not attractive.

The highlights of my trip?  The putti outside the IGA at Derby; 180 ks up the road, mate, if you want a bottle of grog; and, above all, the unexampled glory of the Bungles.  If I can convey one thing to you, it would be this – before you quit this earth, go to the Bungles.  Go right into them – I should know, I have made three bloody trips in or over them.  Go down to the bottom, where it gets like Arizona.  Go to where they made that Qantas ad.  Go up the Picaninny trail and into the Cathedral Gorge.  And just drink in the wonder of it all, and, yes, the Australianness of it all.

If you are Australian and you shuffle off this mortal coil without having gone into the Bungles, you might end up being a lot worse off than a bloody idiot – you might go out as a dead-set bludger.

Itinerary

18/8 Melbourne – Broome (Tuesday)

18-20 Broome (Tues –Wednesday nights) Ochre Moon B&B $320

20-21 Derby (Thursday night) Derby Lodge Motel $160 (222 ks from Broome)

21-22 Fitzroy Crossing (Friday night) Fitzroy Crossing River Lodge $220 (293 ks from Derby)

22-24 Bungle Bungles (Saturday, Sunday nights) Bungle Bungle Tourist Park (En suite) $450 (468 ks from Fitzroy Crossing)

24-27 Kununurra (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday nights) Ibis Styles Hotel $400 (304 ks from Bungle Bungles)

27-28 Timber Creek (Thursday night) Victoria River R’house (Motel) $150 (226 ks from Kununurra)

28-29 Katherine (Friday night) Pine Tree Lodge $120 (286 ks from Timber Creek)

29- 1 Kakadu (Saturday, Sunday, Monday nights) Cooinda Lodge $1042 (258 ks from Katherine)

1/9 Darwin – Melbourne (Tuesday) (285 ks from Cooinda/Kakadu)

Road distance about: 2342 ks.

Accommodation about: $2862

4WD (return fee waived, unlimited ks): $3000

Airfares Melbourne – Broome, Darwin –Melbourne: $830

Total cost about $6692 – without sight-seeing flights and fuel, and meals

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