Gulf Country

In October 2004 I set off from Darwin to drive the eastern section of The Savannah Way, a 3700 kilometre route across the Great Top End of Australia: from Broome in Western Australia to Cairns, in Queensland. Much of the western section of the Savannah Way comprises sealed highways and well-maintained back roads. But the 700km section from Roper Bar, in the Northern Territory, to Normanton, in western Queensland, is a lonely Outback track requiring travellers to be self-sufficient and have some knowledge of four-wheel driving. My rented 4wd, a sturdy Nissan Patrol, was kitted out with two spare tyres, long-distance fuel tanks, a twenty litre container of drinking water and a satellite phone with which I could call for help if I needed to. Thus equipped, I headed into the bush.

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CHAPTER ONE: Crocodile Country

Out where the river broke,
The bloodwood and the desert oak…
                            – Midnight Oil, Beds Are Burning

At Roper Bar I was swimming with crocodiles. And not the harmless freshwater variety, either. These were the real deal: big ‘ol, bad-tempered, drag-you-under-and-drown-you saltwater crocs. The sort of creatures only Crocodile Dundee could handle.

I had joined pilot Paul Smith and his friend Brigit, both of whom worked at the nearby Ngukurr Aboriginal Community, for a swim where the Roper River tumbles over a rocky

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Roper Bar

slab of granite which gave the area its name. As we lolled in the cool water, Paul’s eyes constantly scanned the river for the tell-tale ripple of an approaching croc.

“We’re fine swimming here in the shallows as long as someone watches the river,” Paul said. “But out here you should never swim alone or even go near the water unless someone has told you it’s safe.” Of course where crocs are concerned, “safe” is a dangerously loose term. So when the setting sun began casting shadows on the river, making it harder to see into the water, I was happy to return to the campground and leave the Roper in the care of its Silurian masters.

Dawn in the Australian Outback is always heralded by the strangled gurglings, maniacal cackling, rasping, clicking and guffawing of birds. As I lay awake in the pre-dawn darkness, a pied butcherbird sang limpid notes in the tree above my tent, like a bell tolled in liquid. I rose at 5.30am, lit my petrol stove and ate peaches out of a can while the water boiled. One of the simplest pleasures of travelling in the bush is waiting for the billy to boil for a dawn cuppa. A pair of whistling kites eyed me from a tree-top as I broke camp.

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Campsite at Roper Bar

Beyond Roper Bar the road became absurdly rough: corrugations, bull-dust and potholes you could lose an oil drum in. After an hour or so I stopped at the Tomato Island fishing camp. Mick and Rita Caulfield were mooring their aluminium dinghy beside a concrete boat ramp leading down to the glassy Roper River. Mick held a big barramundi Rita had caught. They invited me to visit their nearby camp.

Mick, stocky and graying, was a motorbike mechanic; Rita was a nurse who worked part-time at the Ngukurr Community, a five-minute boat-ride across the river. We drank coffee and they told me how they had quit their busy lives in Melbourne for the solitude of the Northern Territory bush.

“We went away for twelve months,” Rita said. “That was two years ago and we’re not ready to stop yet.”

“We spent the Wet (The rainy season) in Darwin last year,” Mick added. “Might settle down there when the time comes.”

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On the Roper River.

Later, Mick took me upriver in the dinghy to see the wreck of the Young Australian. The bush grew down to the water’s edge; the river hid its secrets (and its terrors) beneath the glossy, opaque surface.

The wreckage of the boat, run aground at night by a drunken crew in 1873, lay against the upstream edge of a rocky islet. The rusted boiler, with its fire-door agape, had the appearance of a half-submerged skull. I imagined the horror of a sinking boat, the men scrambling blindly in the darkness as the water swirled across the deck-plates, and a crocodile-infested river to swim to safety.

Beyond Tomato Island camp the road hugged the right bank of the river. The radio picked up a broadcast in Pidgin English from Ngukurr. I sat for a while beside a lily-covered lagoon and listened to thunder growl in the distance. But it was an empty threat and no rain came.

Later, I hiked alone through the Southern Lost City, where eons of erosion have sculpted the hard granite into a natural architecture of towers, abutments, arches and grottoes. The hot wind had desiccated the surrounding bush and everything felt tinder-dry and lifeless.

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The Southern Lost City.

I reached the dusty, red-sand township of Borroloola in the late afternoon. I had a cold drink at the local store, called home on the satellite phone, then drove out to King Ash Bay fishing camp, situated where the McArthur River drains languidly into the Gulf of Carpentaria.

I pitched my tent overlooking the river then retired to the Groper Bar for a beer. The bar occupied a rough corrugated shed with a big circular awning out back. Beers were served straight out of a rusty chest freezer. There were eleven other drinkers at the bar, mostly retired-looking gents in grubby singlets and shorts. A wall-eyed dog sprawled in the dirt.

The kitchen sold a range of fried food (is there any other kind at a fishing camp?) and as I worked my way through a giant steak one of the locals came over.

“That your tent by the river, mate?” he asked. I nodded and he continued. “If I was you I’d shift it back from the water a bit.”

I though back to the Roper Bar and how I‘d survived actually sitting in a river full of crocs. Surely I would be safe thirty metres from the river. Mick Dundee wouldn’t have been worried. Sensing my reluctance the old-timer glanced down at the hunk of red meat on my plate then back up at me.

“We’d hate to see you end up like that, mate,” he grinned. ”S’up to you but anything would be better than being eaten by a bloody croc.”

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CHAPTER TWO: The Gates of Hell

Out here nothing changes,
Not in a hurry anyway.
You feel the endlessness,
Running from the light of day…
                             – Goanna, Solid Rock.

East of Borroloola the back left tyre of my four-wheel-drive exploded.  I was driving fast, too fast, probably, on a hellish stretch of road riven by pot-holes and deep puddles of bull-dust.  The corrugated surface was so rough that I was unaware the tyre was disintegrating until I felt the automatic transmission change down a gear and realized the back corner of the vehicle was sitting low.  By then I had driven several kilometres on the flat tyre and all that remained of the outer wall was a few hot shards of steel fibre and charred rubber.  The rim was pitted like a golf ball.

I unpacked the tool kit and one of the two spare tyres I was carrying.  The handle of the bottle jack was missing so I spent the next hour sprawled in the dirt beneath the vehicle, winding the jack up with an adjustable spanner.  Once the ruined wheel was off I had to dig a hole in the road beneath the hub in order to get the spare on.  I was covered from head to toe in bull-dust, grease and sweat.  Even the flies wouldn’t come near me.  I dusted myself off and continued on towards Hell’s Gate.

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Beyond Wollogorang cattle station I crossed the border between the Northern Territory and Queensland.  The sun was incandescent in the blue dome of the sky; the ground too hot to stand on in bare feet.  The border itself was nothing more than a cattle grid set into a post and wire fence which stretched off into the bush and was soon swallowed by the trees.

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The NT/QLD Border.

Hell’s Gate turned out to be a far more pleasant place than its name suggests.  I parked outside the Hell’s Gate Roadhouse in the shade of a spreading magnolia tree which shed its fragrant petals like desert snow.  The beer was icy cold, the girl running the place was charming and friendly, and the Barramundi Burger I had for lunch was the best food I’d eaten since Darwin.

It was the sometimes bloody history of early European settlement which gave the outpost its ominous name.  In the late 1800’s police stationed at nearby Corinda provided regular escorts for Territory-bound settlers as far as the rocky escarpments of Hell’s Gate, refusing to accompany the travellers past this point because of the fierceness of Aboriginals in the area.

Later, on an arrow-straight, red dirt stretch of road scraped through the bush, I was breathalysed by a pair of Queensland Police officers.  Their white 4WD was the first vehicle I’d seen all day.

“You’re a long way from home,” the policewoman said, looking at the Victoria plates on the front of my vehicle.

“Further than you think,” I replied.

“Oh, you’re a bloody Kiwi,” said her burly partner, whose suntanned arms looked like truck axles.  They checked my licence and I blew into a gadget which confirmed I wasn’t some drunken lunatic driving around out in the bush alone.  A battered Toyota Landcruiser laden with grinning Aboriginals from the nearby Doomadgee Community pulled up and the police lost interest in teasing me.

Burketown (pop 230) shuts its shops early.  I booked into the Burketown Pub – “the oldest pub in Queensland” – and by 5pm it seemed virtually everyone in town was at the bar.  The English barmaid, Sophie, in a neat inversion of the Kiwi bartender in London, had applied for the job – board, lodgings and an air ticket from the east coast – when she ran out of money in Cairns.

I swallowed an ice-cold glass of Toohies New beer while some of assembled drinkers ribbed me about the destroyed wheel bolted to the back of my 4WD.

“Ya won’t be geddin’ that one fixed mate,” said a stockman sitting under a wagon wheel-sized Akubra hat.

When I asked him the way to the Burketown Salt Flats he nodded his hat towards the horizon and said  “Just drive that way till you don’t see any more cane toads.”

In the darkness before dawn next morning I drove out past the edge of town.  The road

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Burketown Salt Flats at Dawn.

crumbled into furrows then into a single pair of wheel-tracks leading out onto the salt flats.  The headlights cast twin pools of light onto the flat, featureless ground ahead; everything else was black as if I was driving into a void.

The salt flats were the quietest place I have ever been.  I was the only living thing out there that morning.  Nothing moved apart from vague air currents too insubstantial to be called wind.  The surface of the ground was cracked like a reptile’s skin and the cool air possessed a vague odour of phosphate.  It was so still I could almost feel the movement of the Earth.

A sliver of moon, attended by a pair of planets, hung in the eastern sky which was washed pale pink by the approaching sun.  Soon, the heat would begin to rise and I would be on the road again, driving into another day of Outback adventures beyond the Gates of Hell.

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CHAPTER THREE: The Promised Land

“I live and breathe the silences
and dust where no man reigns…”
                             – Cold Chisel, Wild Colonial Boy.

South of Burketown the Camooweal Road unfolded like a scar across the red dirt of Western Queensland. The morning sun, wreathed in a grey haze of dust and bush-fire smoke, cast sinister shadows among the skeletal trunks of dead gum trees. It was the first month of “The Wet”, but the rains had yet to come and the landscape lay parched and austere beneath the empty dome of the sky. Scrawny cattle mooched listlessly beside near-empty waterholes.

My destination was Lawn Hill National Park, a haven of lush vegetation and cool waters 220 kilometres south of Burketown. But although that distance is “just down the road” by Australian standards, after two hour’s driving I began to worry that I had missed the turn-off to the park.

“Carry on into town, mate,” a stockman told me when I flagged him down to ask directions to Gregory Downs, where the Lawn Hill Track begins. Town? Out here? But sure enough, twenty kilometres later I arrived in Gregory Downs, supply base for the nearby Pasminco Zinc Mine. There were a few houses dotted around, a shaded playground, rodeo arena, basketball court, and of course, a pub.

Built in classic outback style – corrugated roof, wide verandah, rusticated weatherboards – the pub looked as though it was listing slightly, like a drunken ringer. There were five dogs asleep on the cool floor behind the bar. A solitary drinker thumbed a battered magazine about earthmoving machinery. The barmaid stopped reading “The Liver-cleansing Diet” long enough to pour me a beer.

Beyond Gregory Downs the road deteriorated into an endless stretch of corrugations and bull-dust. It was as if I was being subjected to some sort of epic Biblical driving test which, if I endureed, would be rewarded by the lush vegetation and cool waters of Lawn Hill.

Adel’s Grove Resort, a former botanical research farm by a bend in Lawn Hill Creek, arrived like an oasis. Situated a few kilometres from the park’s entrance, the resort is the main accommodation base for visitors to the area. There were permanent tents set up on wooden platforms overlooking the river; the restaurant had a vast, shady verandah where spinning fans kept the lethargic air moving.

Covering 400,000 hectares, Lawn Hill – known as Boodjamulla by the Waanyi Aboriginal people who have inhabited the area for 17,000 years – is widely regarded as Australia’s best National Park. The park’s magnificent gorge has been carved by spring-fed creeks through red sandstone nearly 1.5 billion years old. On the south-western edge of the park lies Riversleigh Fossil Mammal Site, a World Heritage Area containing the richest known fossil deposit in Australia.

In the afternoon I paddled a hired canoe up Lawn Hill Creek to Indarri Falls. Below the falls, where the creek tumbles into a deep rock-hole fringed by pandanus trees and bull-rushes, I swam alone in the cool water. The sun created deep shadows against the fullsizeoutput_545canyon walls. Waves of heat shimmered along the rim. A great egret cranked across the gorge like a bag of sticks with wings; white-browed robins twittered in the undergrowth. Paddling back downstream in the evening I saw an olive python dangling from a branch.

That night a plague of locusts arrived. Drawn by the lights of the camp they collided with the furniture, flew into drinks and clanged in pieces off the fans. Later, as I lay in my tent listening to the sounds of the bush, I could smell the acrid smoke of some far-off bush-fire.

Next morning I set off at first light to hike up to Upper Gorge. The trail led through a narrow, rocky valley where bloodwoods and grevilleas grew amid silvery spinifex grass. I climbed to the canyon rim over ripple stone which bore the marks of tides which had once washed some ancient, vanished shore.

High above the river the canyon walls closed in until they were only a few metres apart, inviting a leap of faith which would almost certainly end in failure and death if I tried but which was interesting to contemplate in an Indiana Jones sort of way. Flights of chattering green rosellas flipped across the water far below and I could see the tell-tale angular wakes of freshwater crocodiles.

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Upper Gorge Rim, Lawn Hill National Park.

By mid-morning it was forty-three degrees in the shade. I spent the day lounging around camp, dozing in my tent, and reading while I floated on the river in an inner tube.

As afternoon cooled into evening I paddled back up through the gorges to the Indarri Falls. Wallabies hoped through the undergrowth on the riverbank. Sulphur-crested cockatoos and cormorants perched on branches overhanging the water. The warbling call of an invisible rock pigeon told me it was “four-o-clock.” The canyon walls glowed pastel pink, as if they were lit from within by their own pale light.

Dutch tourists Judith, Marijke and Anne were swimming in the pool below the falls. I moored the canoe, swam across to the falls and sat on a smooth rock to watch the sunset.

Travelling in the Outback I had experienced heat, dust, a landscape baked almost to death, abominable roads, bush-fires and a Biblical plague of kamikaze locusts. But at Lawn Hill I felt as though I was in an earthly paradise. As I sat there beneath the falls, with the sun sinking towards the horizon, the heat leaking out of the air and three dusky maidens cavorting in the shining water, I doubted if Moses himself could have dreamed up a more perfect version of the Promised Land.

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CHAPTER FOUR: Under The Sun

You’re in by Karumba,
Where the fishing boats come in;
I can’t believe this feeling,
But I wish that I was there,
Every passing day…
                    – Goanna, Every Passing Day

Fifteen nautical miles north-west of Karumba the oppressive air pressed down on us with an almost tactile force. Thunderheads massed on the horizon told of a cooling storm to come, but for now the four of us aboard the Kathryn M2 were at the mercy of the monsoonal heat. The boat’s hull cleaved the water of the Gulf of Carpentaria with a sibilant hiss; the diesel engine thrummed beneath the deck plates. We were making eighteen knots, heading back to port with our day’s catch: three decent barracuda, a black kingfish and half a dozen Spanish mackerel. Standing on the bridge, with a cold beer in my hand, I watched the green smudge of the Australian coast drawing slowly nearer. Behind us, the boat’s wake unfolded across the sea which lay like a sheet of obsidian beneath the luminous immensity of the sky.

Karumba is situated in the south-east corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria: the southernmost extremity of the Arafura Sea. Nearby, where the sluggish Norman River falls into the Gulf, a delta of tidal creeks and wetlands extend inland in a series of meandering saltwater estuaries. This mangrove-choked landscape is the habitat of estuarine crocodiles (the bad ol’ boys of the crocodile world) and a vast array of bird species. The Gulf is located on the migratory path known as the East Asian Flyway and hundreds of thousands of birds use the region as a jumping-off point for their flights into Asia and beyond. Flocks of eastern bar-tailed godwits, fresh from their summer on the Avon-Heathcote Estuary, stop off to rest here en route back to their breeding grounds in Alaska.

The Port of Karumba was originally a refuelling and repair stop for the Empire Flying Boats, which connected Sydney to Great Britain. The aircraft landed on the stretch of the river in front of the town and during WW2 were the only aerial connection Australia hadfullsizeoutput_534 with the rest of the world. Karumba was also a Catalina Flying Boat base for the Royal Australian Air Force and the ramp onto which these amphibians taxied now forms one of the town‘s streets.

I first heard of Karumba in the mid-eighties in a song called Every Passing Day by Australian band Goanna. At the time I was working on a High Country sheep station, deep in the Southern Alps. It was a world of sheep dogs and horses, hobnail boots and musterer’s huts, harsh winters and late snows. For me, Karumba was out on the edge of the world, about as far removed from the High Country as it was possible to get. Lying on my bed in the shepherd’s quarters, listening to that song while the nor’ wester shrieked around the eaves, I imagined steaming mangrove swamps, crocodiles and tidal mud, fishing boats coming home in the sunset and endless, punishing heat. Karumba seemed like the sort of beyond the pale place I would never visit. And yet, in one of those strange twists that life can take, here I was, sailing home to Karumba after a day’s fishing on the Gulf, with the first flickers of lightning exploding across the sky and the air heavy with the scent of rain.

By the time we reached shore it was raining: a heavy, blattering downpour which pock-marked the opaque water of the river and ran in deluges from the scuppers. We adjourned to the Sunset Tavern (one of the few places in Eastern Australia where you can watch the sun set over the ocean) to re-live the day’s escapades. Outside, sixty millimetres of rain fell in less than an hour. By nightfall the storm had moved on and a watery sliver of moon hung in the sky.

Karumba is the southernmost port of the Arafura Sea, surely the most evocatively-named sea in the world. The name is redolent of pirates and pearling luggers, of spice islands and hidden mangrove coastlines. It’s the sort of sea that a character in a Joseph Conrad novel would set sail across, “blue and profound, without a stir, without a ripple, without a wrinkle, viscous, stagnant, dead.”

Prior to the European discovery of Australia, the Arafura Sea was the haunt of Macassan fleets from the Celebes Islands . The Macassans harvested beche-de-mer – a type of sea cucumber resembling a black, tumescent penis – which they cured on site and sold to the Chinese as an aphrodisiac. Later came pearl divers then shrimp fisherman, and today Karumba is home base for Australia’s largest shrimping fleet.

The day after my fishing trip was a Saturday. Nothing much was happening in Karumba. A few fishing boats came and went at the pier; the tide rose and fell among the mangroves and mooring ropes along the Norman River; mirages shimmered on the asphalt road leading out of town and into the Outback; ceiling fans stirred the tepid air in the Animal Bar of the Karumba Lodge Pub; next door, the Suave Bar was empty. I sat in the shade of a spreading fig tree outside the Post Office drinking chilled orange juice. Ants were nesting in a crack in the concrete sidewalk. A girl came and emptied the mail from box 71 of the 233 red mail boxes set into the wall. Magpie larks played desultorily on the blue and orange phone boxes.

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Karumba

All day thunderheads grumbled out on the plains. The sun was incandescent in the pewter dome of the sky. As afternoon wore on the heat grew more and more oppressive. Mosquitoes fed on my exposed skin and flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos flew screeching from tree to tree. It was as if the natural world knew something was about to happen and was restive.

As the sun began its descent into the sea, the horizon was shrouded by roiling clouds. Bolts of lightning jumped earthward from the black belly of the storm. The atmosphere seemed full of electricity and moisture. This was the real deal, the full spectacle of heat, convection, air masses, water vapour, static electricity and raw energy. The sun had gone out. All that remained was a pale, flat, eerie glow which cast no shadows. Huge knives of lightning sliced the sky, thunder detonated overhead with ear-splitting force and the air turned the colour of soot. As the storm raged all around I took off my shirt and let the rain beat on my bare skin like a benediction.

Karumba is the sort of place which epitomises the adage “the journey is the destination”. You need to make a real effort to get there by driving west from Cairns through 800 kilometres of empty Outback. And, let‘s face it, there’s not a lot to see once you‘ve arrived. Sure, people come from all over the world for the excellent fishing. Campers spend months at the Sunset Point Caravan Park just doing nothing. And there is a zinc smelter to visit if you’re really stuck for entertainment.

But the real attraction of visiting a place like Karumba is being on the edge of the world. Tropical towns by the sea have a different feel to inland places. They look outwards, towards the emptiness of the ocean, away from the security and certainties of the land. For me the pleasure of being in Karumba lay in simply watching the sun set over the sea while the Sunset Tavern regulars, oblivious of the solar spectacle outside, gambled on television horses racing in other parts of Australia. It lay in the thrill of watching the violent arrival of a tropical storm after the ennui of a 45 degree day. And, best of all, it lay in the pure, unexpected delight of being in a place I’d dreamed of for so long.

In Karumba I could smell the warm breath of Asia. Across the narrow waters of the Arafura Sea lay the jungle islands of Irian Jaya, the coral atolls of the Mollucas and the teeming shores of Indonesia. Yet even this close to Asia I was rooted firmly in white Australia. Satellite dishes beamed the latest news of the world into town; every meal came with chips and beetroot; men in grubby shorts and tee-shirts drank copious quantities of Victoria Bitter beer from ice-cold glasses; and, on the edge of town, Aboriginal people moved like ghosts in their own land.

On my last evening in Karumba I drifted down to the Sunset Tavern to watch my final Arafura sunset. Day ends suddenly in the tropics. Sunsets are always brief but spectacular. I sat on a rocky outcrop, still warm from the day’s heat, as the sun sank inexorably into the sea and the sky turned the colour of spilled blood. Distant thunderclouds piled on the horizon were lit from within by strobes of lightning. As the sun disappeared the colour bled from the sky, the sea faded from pink to indigo, and night came down like a theatrical curtain.

I sat for a while in the gloaming listening to the pulse of the ocean. The incoming tide roared on the shoreline with a noise like a distant cheering crowd. Karumba had once been a place which existed only as a collection of images conjured in my imagination by the words of a song. But now that I had seen it Karumba was real. It had been burned into my memory during the time I had spent out there, under the sun on the edge of the world. The ocean glittered in the starlight and I knew that, for the rest of my life, I would go to Karumba in my mind, once or twice every passing day.

THE END

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