35. Australia Road Trip: Adventures on a Highway called Stuart.

Desert stopover

tennant Creek skyline from peko Road Mining Museum
tennant Creek skyline from peko Road Mining Museum

Where is Tennant Creek?

A markerTennant Creek Australia -
Tennant Creek NT 0860, Australia
[get directions]

Historic and important - Tennant Creek lies in the heart of Australia.

Welcome to the Northern Territory

The Northern Territory is a place like no other. It’s flat as a tack, dry as a bone and hot as a two bob watch. That description is not entirely true as Tennant Creek is surrounded by low hills and mesas, giving it the look and feel of a wild west desert town and the red earth casts a warm tint over the little community and its dry oasis of shady gum trees. We decide camp the first night in the Tennant Creek Caravan Park on the main street. Now don’t be confused, the Stuart Highway is the main street and it just rolls right on through town, all the way from Darwin in the north, through to Adelaide in the south, with Alice Springs being the main town in the middle. Tennant Creek is just one of a handful of places along this mighty asphalt river where you can pull ashore and attend to the more prosaic aspects of life like shopping, and filling up the petrol tank, and having a feed and a cold beer. In our case, our most important mission is to fix the ignition or the starter or the battery or whatever it is that is causing our Winnebago van not to start.

Stuck in the desert with a wheel problem

Still life with rusty wheel and gum tree. Tennant Creek
Still life with rusty wheel and gum tree. Tennant Creek

We think we have car troubles

This is not us...but it could be us.
This is not us...but it could be us.

From Traveller to Temporary Local

When something like a mechanical problem occurs everything gets thrown into chaos. Suddenly you are no longer a traveller - one who is just passing through - you become a temporary resident of the place where you are broken down. Against your will or your intentions you are forced to stay in the place and engage with the general population in a far more intimate way than if you are just using their services and leaving after a night. For starters you have to find a mechanic, in our case an auto-electrician, then hope he can fix your rig as soon as possible; then hope, beyond expectations, that the work will not be too expensive. Then you have to find a place to stay until it’s fixed and that means staying in a town that most travellers would not stop at for longer than a transitory night. This has happened to us before on this trip - we were stranded in Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains and in Coffs Harbour on the NSW coast, both times because of mechanical failure. Now we are facing a sojourn in Tennant-bloody-Creek, hoping beyond hope that our starting problems are only down to a dodgy battery.

Our first task is to find a mechanic, which we do, but he tells us he is “bloody busy until next Friday fortnight.” However, he directs us to the town’s newly installed Auto Electrician, TC Auto Electrics on an industrial estate out on the desert fringe, but as it is a Sunday, he is shut. Already I am feeling a growing familiarity with “The Creek” – I feel like I know my way around a bit more than I should.

Back at the Tennant Creek Caravan Park we park up in our assigned spot and I reluctantly turn the engine off. Winnie lets out a big dusty sigh and we do too. We soon discover that the dry grass next to our site is booby-trapped with large burrs that painfully penetrate our thongs and stick in our fingers as we attempted to pull them out. Oh, the Outback is a harsh place alright.
Fortunately we have opted for a site with a "slab" (that is, a concrete slab that serves as a level, non-dusty place to set up table and chairs) and its there I sit with a cold beer, staring at a colony of ants as they form two bustling highways, one along the outside edge of the slab and another across the centre, right under the doorstep of the van. If I try to divert the highway the ants scatter all over the slab and run up my legs so it’s better just to let them carry on with their endless business.

That evening we walk into the town centre to find food. It being Sunday there is little available and even less open. Even the Tennant Creek Hotel has a near empty bar. It is cool in there, with ceiling fans to stir the air, and the beer is exquisitely cold. According to the bored barmaid, there is a restaurant called the Rusty Spur across the street, – it’s new and she "hasn’t actually been there", but it’s supposed to be OK. All we can see across the street is a takeaway pizza joint where a mob of Aboriginals are engaged in a loud exchange. We cross over anyway and sure enough, a Now Open sign indicates the location of the Rusty Spur through a blacked out doorway right next to the pizza place.

Inside it’s near luxury. Well, not quite, but very clean and tidy with an attempt at Outback Kitsch décor - corrugated iron instead of flock wallpaper and hurricane lamps for chandeliers. The owner is a charming and friendly bloke who is genuinely pleased to have us as customers. The food is homemade and fresh and afterwards we feel slightly human again, and very much at ease with Territorian hospitality.

Monday dawns and a new day brings new hope. With help from our camp neighbours we push start the old van and drive up to TC Auto Electrics. Young Dave, the proprietor, checks it out and confirms that it is the starter motor that needs replacing, that he’ll start this afternoon and it will cost us about 300 bucks. Now we must make quick arrangements. We need a place to stay for the day, preferably a place that is a bit nicer than the Tennant Creek Caravan Park. 'Auto-Dave' restarts Winnie with a big hammer and we drive down a side street, the Peko Road, to a place called the Outback Caravan Park. Here, without shutting down the engine, we book a cabin for the night, off-load our valuables and clothes and then drive back and deposit our beloved, but belligerent and broken, mobile home in the tumbleweed-littered yard of Auto-Dave the Auto-electrician.

We walk back to town and at last are able to explore the ‘fascinating’ streets of Tennant Creek. It’s Monday morning and about as busy as it gets here but everywhere appears to be shut. On closer inspection we see that all the businesses have dark tinted windows and keep their doors hermetically sealed and the aircon on against the blistering heat outside.

We soon find a news agency that sells yesterday’s papers and a café that makes really good flat whites. What more could you ask for! The many aboriginal people who wander about the street or hang out in the shade either nod a friendly hello or are casually indifferent to us.

After coffee, we spend the rest of the day slouching around in our air-conditioned cabin or by the Caravan park's swimming pool. The Outback Caravan Park is quite a smart place. Though it is hot and dry, the campsites are shaded by groves of tall trees and the pool is set in a tropical garden with palms. At 4.30 every afternoon a little bar opens and we can sit on a shady patio drinking icy cold beers for an hour or so with an assortment of other travellers for company.

Tuesday 9am - Phone Auto-Dave on the camp payphone. He has ordered the new starter motor and it will arrive in town at 10.30 this morning. Yes!

10am - we check out and leave our stuff in the camp office while we collect the van. We walk into town for a flat white and a read of the previous day’s Territorian while we wait for the new starter motor to be installed.

Midday - Phone Auto-Dave to find out if the job is completed.

Oh no! - The part hasn’t arrived. It’s been sent to Darwin by mistake and won’t be in Tennant Creek until the following morning. We aren't going anywhere today. We have no choice but to drag ourselves back to the caravan park and book back into our cabin for at least another night.

Red earth and rust

Outback landscape with that symbol of Aussie civilisation - corrugated iron
Outback landscape with that symbol of Aussie civilisation - corrugated iron
Donkey engine
Donkey engine

Later that day, in the height of the afternoon heat, I walk my frustration off along the Peko Road, where I find a Museum and Mining Experience attraction. The place is like a ghost town under the ferocious eye of the sun. Because of the cyclonic floods in the east of the country, there are very few tourists on the road and even fewer stopped for any length of time in this neck of the woods. From the museum I look out from the shaded verandah across the shallow valley where I can see the rooftops of Tennant Creek amongst the low canopy of trees. Beyond that, the red hills are speckled with blue-green bush and grasses. The sky is slightly smoky and the air shimmers over the vista. I can see the colours of the desert reflected in the art of the aboriginals here. It’s a harsh land, yet a beautiful one too, a contradiction of time and place that we must learn to understand if we are to endure and enjoy it.

The next morning I phone Auto-Dave again. At last he has good news, and we repeat the previous day’s exercise - check out, leave our gear in the park office, walk into town; have a coffee and read yesterday's paper then check with Auto-Dave on progress. Result! This time we return to the caravan Park in our van to pick up our stuff from the office. I Confidently stop the engine, and load up but one thing we have to do is empty, clean and fumigate the fridge as its contents have sat for two days in 35°C temperatures - you should have seen state of the milk.

We fill up at the Shell servo on main street (Stuart Highway), then, making sure that we are pointed in the right direction - north - we roll out of Tennant Creek. The main street morphs into the Stuart Highway and we are soon surrounded by nothing except termite mounds, red dirt and an endless vista of flat dry scrub. We're on the road again, bound for Darwin, a mere 1000kms up the road.

The famous Outback servo (serice station)
The famous Outback servo (serice station)

A Dalliance at Daly

The Pub - serving cold beer and travellers since 1930
The Pub - serving cold beer and travellers since 1930
Angle Parking - Any Angle Mate
Angle Parking - Any Angle Mate
The missus though it was her own private toilet.
The missus though it was her own private toilet.
Aggressive butcher bird demanding my attention
Aggressive butcher bird demanding my attention
having a scrap
having a scrap

QANTAS - Did you know

QANTAS is Australia's national airline

QANTAS is an acronym that stands for Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services

QANTAS is the world's second oldest continuosly operating airline

QANTAS is famous for having a 100% safety record to date... but according to Wikipedia -

"it had eight fatal accidents and an aircraft shot down between 1927 and 1945, with the loss of 63 people. Half of these accidents and the shoot-down occurred during World War II, when the Qantas aircraft were operating on behalf of Allied military forces. Post-war, it lost another two aircraft with the loss of 17 lives. To this date, the last fatal accident suffered by Qantas was in 1951.

QANTAS used Daly Waters as a refuelling point on the way to Singapore, way back when. In fact, Daly Waters aerodrome was finally closed to commercial air traffic in 1965.

Outback Servo

The Stuart Highway doesn’t exactly wind its way through the NorthernTerritory, though in the first 200 kilometre stretch out of Tennant Creek there are a few bends and hills as the road skirts the eastern edge of the vast Tanami Desert. Beyond the minuscule and weary little settlement of Elliot, the countryside begins to change from a dry wilderness to a wetter, savannah-style landscape, equally as wild, and the roads seem dead straight for scores of Kilometres before a single bend reveals yet another hazy vanishing point in the distance. Around 4pm we finally turn off the highway and cross a small flooded causeway that leads to Daly Waters Roadhouse, a wonderful little spot for a stop over and highly recommended by all the travel guides. Daly waters used to be an international airport back in the days when a flight to London took a week.

There is a quaint outback pub and a couple of petrol pumps which constitute the “Daly Waters Outback Servo,” and a lovely, grassy campsite, shaded by tall gums. The pub is great - 90 years old and stuffed with ephemera left by travellers over the years. There are caps and t-shirts, cards and photos, knickers and autographed bras. The place is scruffy but authentic. It really is a remote roadhouse despite sitting at the junction of the Carpentaria Highway, another interminably long dirt road that leads to the west coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria and which is in fact part of the great Savannah Way that we previosly travelled on out of Mareeba, all those pre-cyclone days ago. The feel and the décor of the pub/hotel/servo/B&B has evolved over time and we feel an affinity with the handful of other travellers that are camping here overnight.

After a few cold ones in the pub, while I’m sitting on the step of the camper having another beer and a fag, a pack of butcher birds run up to me and start squawking and shouting at me. Then two of them get into a disagreement and an almighty bird-fight erupts in the dirt. The tough little creatures form a greedy circle around the two combatants and cheer them on like a gang of schoolboys watching a punch up in the vacant lot next to school. Even the birds up here add to the tough Territorian atmosphere.
At Daly Waters I feel like we are getting real close to Darwin, to a big city, even though we are less than halfway. We have been travelling in the bush and the outback ever since we left Cape Tribulation in Queensland over two weeks ago and we are both looking forward to being in a big, bustling metropolis again, if only for a couple of days. 9am - On the road again. I don’t know what I expected, us getting closer to Darwin – more traffic, more towns, farms, cattle, people - wrong.
The Stuart Highway is immediately engulfed by wilderness as soon as we leave Daly Waters and except for the inauspicious village of Larrima, there is little sign of human settlement beyond the edge of the highway, just thick bush growing out of soggy, flooded ground.

A markerMataranka Northern Territory -
Mataranka NT 0852, Australia
[get directions]

Aerial view of the Never Never

Mataranka in the heart of the Never Never

The entrance to the gallery at Mataranka
The entrance to the gallery at Mataranka
End of the road at The swollen Roper River
End of the road at The swollen Roper River
The river is up
The river is up
The Big Ant Hill (fibreglass)
The Big Ant Hill (fibreglass)
Little ant hills (termite mounds actually
Little ant hills (termite mounds actually
Our camp at Mataranka
Our camp at Mataranka
Oasis pond with waterlillies
Oasis pond with waterlillies
Minor bird antics
Minor bird antics

Mythical Mataranka

The few travellers we have spoken to over the past few days have all said they’re going to Mataranka to bathe in the thermal pools that are hidden away in lush rainforest on the banks of the Little Roper River which skirts the town. The brochures we have seen make it look like a very luxuriant place and we drive with the anticipation of bathing in those delicious springs. Mataranka is a 'Tidy Town', so says the “Welcome To…” sign. It is indeed a Tidy Town, though it is so small it only occupies one side of the Highway. There are petrol stations, a post office, a police station, a small foodmart, and the Bushman Gallery which sells fantastic homemade quiche and decent filter coffee. There are some great pieces of contemporary aboriginal art inside too. We like little Mataranka - it has a feeling of rugged sophistication to it.

The town is also home to The Big Anthill – a larger than life model of the ubiquitous termite mounds that cover this land. A bit further along the main street (the only street – Stuart Highway) are the life-size statues of characters from the famous novel “We of the Never Never” (Jeannie Gunn, 1908).

We are actually in that mythical region known as the “Never Never”. The hardships endured by those early white settlers can only be imagined. Here we are sitting in our start-first-time Winnebago, sweating our tits off, swatting flies and scratching mozzie bites and those early settlers lived here, without the bloody Stuart Highway as a companion, and actually carved a life out of the extreme land. The local Aboriginals, who sit in large groups under trees along the other side of the road, seem much less perturbed by their situation, but then they have lived here for 40,000 years. This is their land.

After quiche and coffee in the lush gardens of the Stockyard Gallery we try and drive down to the thermal pools. The Little Roper River however, has other plans and completely covers the road and bridge that leads to the springs. We try Bitter Springs, a couple of Kilometres further up the highway. It too is completely cut-off by the late monsoon flood. We are foiled by flood again, but we take a campsite anyway in the lovely Parkland Caravan Park just outside town.

During the afternoon the weather just gets hotter and hotter despite the shade cast by our awning and the massive gum trees overhead. We swim in the soothing swimming pool as a substitute for the lush natural pools currently drowned under metres of undoubtedly crocodile infested river water. As dusk approaches and it cools ever so slightly we take stroll around the shady perimeter of the park. There are wallabies and lots of amusing birds, and as long as we stay under the cool canopy of trees the air is bearable. But we wander outside the fence and start to walk down the road in the hope of spotting some Brolgas in the scrub and are soon driven back to the camp by the intense heat and humidity that emanates up from the asphalt.

That night it is as hot as anything we have experienced so far in the tropics and it is all that we can do to drop into peaceful slumber.

We hit the road again in the morning. There is nothing for it but to leave Mataranka and move further north to the next town - Katherine, only 100kms away and the site of one of Australia’s premier natural attractions – the must see, Nitmiluk Gorge.

Bush Karma

So the next morning we’re cruising along, about 60kms out of Katherine and Sheila remarks on a gaseous odour, a smell that we had both caught a whiff of the day before. I feel a change of tone in the monotonous drone that comes with Winnie’s steady, grinding pace. Then a clunk and a grumble adds sound to the smell and I have no option but to stop on the shoulderless highway. I get out and have a look under the chassis. Can’t see anything wrong so we head off again. The sound effects get worse and I see a lay-by up ahead. We stop and have another look and can’t figure it out. I drive on again with great trepidation as the noise and vibration becomes more intense. Five kilometres further and a rest stop appears. We pull off and I get under the truck properly and see a great mass of smelly black oil leaking from the rear wheel drum. It’s our worst nightmare - broken down in the f***ing outback!

We of the Never Never - A major Australian Motion Picture

Ten Canoes - An acclaimed recent film depicting life among the Aboriginals of the Never Never

Capricornia - a fabulous epic novel of life in the Northern Territory - I loved this book.

I'm not a mechanic but I can deduce that it must be oil from the differential leaking through a seal where the wheel meets the axle. This could be really serious. I can’t see how we can just drive on and risk doing further damage. Sheila is freaked and understandably upset and I feel ineffectual and stupid because I know I can’t fix this. I jack Winnie up and spin the offending wheel in an attempt to do something. I’m tempted to take off the wheel and the brake drum and see the leak for myself, maybe I could cut a temporary seal from an old thong, or maybe I should just leave it be.

Now something curious happens.
From where we are parked, my attention is drawn to a glint in the thick bush. I look closer and can see a couple of cars parked down a dirt track. Well, there’s nothing for it, I have to see if there are people who can help us. Perhaps they have a satellite phone so we can call a mechanic in Katherine for advice. We walk down the track and there is the remains of a dismantled campsite and a couple of vehicles. There are two young blokes and a girl in the camp and they are busy scraping mud off a coaster bus which appears to have spent the night stuck in a bog.

“Gooday” I say, and they look up at us curiously, “I don’t suppose any of you guys are mechanics are you?” I ask with as pleasant a grin as I can muster under the circumstances. The girl laughs out loud and tells me that it’s my lucky day, both the guys just happen to be mechanics. Such is the karma of the Outback.

One of the them gets under Winnie and confirms that it is indeed a ruptured diff seal. He checks the diff oil and reckons that we can baby it into Katherine, only 45 kms away. He even tells us what it should cost to have it fixed. From despair to hope in the middle of nowhere, we thank our saviours profusely and head back onto the Stuart Highway with Winnie grinding and growling and smelling like farty gas until at last the Stuart Highway turns into the main street of Katherine, the Northern Territory’s third largest town. We've made it, to somewhere, again. But for how much longer can we keep this old vehicle on the road? All the way around I hope!

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