Our first stop in NT was Seven Emu Station, the first (and only) known Aboriginal owned cattle station, which promotes itself as a great destination for the self-sufficient 4 WD traveller interested in nature, culture, heritage or fishing. No one was there when we arrived so we tried various station tracks to no avail and just parked in the yard and had lunch; eventually someone arrived. We then drove 5 km’s on tracks to a private campsite on a steep cliff overlooking the Robinson River. Had our own Stockmen’s shelter, loo with a view, flush toilet & shower, plus firewood. Dick built a fire under the donkey boiler to heat the shower water and that night we had a lovely campfire (our first token campfire for this trip) and even ate dinner outside by the fire. Fireworks by the locals on the river bed finished off our evening. Unfortunately Frank, who owns the station and does the tours, was away so we couldn’t meet him or do his tour, which was the main reason for going there. The tour would have included a visit to Australian Wilderness Conservancy’s wildlife sanctuary, and access to the coast on the Gulf of Carpentaria. However, it was a magical camp anyway.
Another long, hot driving day on corrugated roads took us through Booroloola (tourist info, fuel and dump stop) and to two “Lost Cities”. The first at Caranbirini Conservation Reserve, where a hot walk took us around the 25 metre high sandstone pillars known as ‘lost city’ formations. The second was the Southern Lost City in Limmen’ NP, where we saw more of the large sandstone spires and rounded dome formations resulting from erosion of the sandstone escarpment. We camped there and did the 2.5 km circuit thru this lost city in the last hour of daylight. For me that was enough lost cities to last a long time! The heat since arriving in the NT has been getting to me and we have been very greatful to Lea for insisting that we buy a Transcool, 12 V airconditioner. At first we wondered if we’d ever use it but boy are we glad we have it for all our national park and bush camps with no power.
Another long driving day (via Roper Bar), more heat, and more corrugations got us to Bitter Springs and a lovely change. Within an hour of arriving in the CP we were in the thermal hot springs, floating for 10 minutes down a stream on our noodles (floating aids) surrounded by lush tropical bush. We spent a pleasant hour there with numerous downstream floats. Amazing to have free access to such a lovely place, and within walking distance from the CP where we managed to score a bushy private campsite.
Drove to Katherine and felt like we were in “caravan city”; the place was overflowing with caravans! Found out later it is referred to as the ‘Crossroads of the North’, as two main roads, The Explorers Way and the Savannah Way, lead north, south, east and west from there. It was 37 degrees C and stifling. We visited the Tourist Info, a cafe for lunch and Woolworths for groceries and everyone seemed to be walking around like zombies because of the heat. Decided to keep going north as couldn’t get into places and we could stop on the way back. Stopped at Hayes Creek CP on the way to Litchfield NP (and took power for the AC).
Litchfield NP is close to Darwin and features 6 or 7 stunning waterfalls which cascade from sandstone outcrops, walking trails, 4 WD tracks and camping spots. We picked the campsite at Tjaynera Falls, only accessible by 4WD, and not so crowded. Did the 1.7 km walk to the falls later in the afternoon when it was cooler, and enjoyed a cool and refreshing swim. The next day we decided to do a blitz on waterfalls before leaving the park and driving to Darwin, so visited Wangi Falls, Tolmer Falls, Florence Falls and had a swim/sit in Buley Rockhole.
Got to Darwin in time to collect a package at the post office and go for fish and chips while enjoying the sunset with friends, Lyn and Graham, at Cullen Beach. Enjoyed three nights in Darwin so had time to stock up/clean up/do repairs and general catch up, plus a bit of shopping and market visits. Darwin is the capital city of the Northern Territory (NT) and has a population of 140,000, out of a total NT population of 244,000. I was surprised at those low the population numbers. Darwin was named after Charles Darwin, scientist and evolutionist, who visited the area on ‘The Beagle’ from 1831-36. The city was destroyed by Japanese bombs in 1942 during WW2 and then it was devastated again by ‘Cyclone Tracy’ in 1974. There are a lot of WW2 historic sites throughout the NT. We enjoyed more time and another dinner out with Lyn and Graham. Also managed to take in the famous Beer Can Regatta on Mindl Beach – people race in boats made out of beer cans. Its a fun atmosphere and something different, very Darwin! It was fortunate to be in a place when one of the big events was on. Next stop – Kakadu NP!
Bamaga is the largest town in the NPA (Northern Peninsula Area) so we got groceries, fuel, water and dumped the toilet there before checking into Loyalty Beach campground, another great spot right on the beach. This one had wonderful sunset views, a shuttle to take us to the Thursday Island (TI) ferry terminal, and a great restaurant. We had a beautiful sunny day and a calm boat trip for the l hour & 10 minute ferry ride to TI. Started off with a tour from a local guide who gave us a good intro to the Island. TI has a population of 3500 on an island of approximately 3.5 square kilometers. 70 government depaertments have offices on TI which serves an the admin centre for all the Australian islands in the Torres Strait and the NPA. It was interesting to learn about the Torres Strait Islanders and how they are very different from aboriginals, being melanesian and agrarian rather than nomadic, so have very different cultures. A visit to the Green Hill Fort museum highlighted the military and pearling history of TI. Green Hill Fort is a hilltop fortress with guns that have never been fired in anger. Initial concerns were about the Russians expanding in the Pacific, and then offsetting the French presence in New Caledonia and in 1877 the Royal Navy pressed for fortifications to guard the only known navigable passage inside the Great Barrier Reef. Today it showcases fabulous views around TI.
Did some wandering around on our own and managed to visit a boutique and pearl gallery plus a design shop for some retail fun. Lunch at the Grand Hotel overlooking the harbor completed our tour on TI, and a very nice dinner at the Loyalty Beach campground/fishing lodge restaurant rounded out a good day.
We finished off our time at the top of Australia with two nights in a free camp at Muttee Heads, a remote free campsite on a beautiful beach where just like everywhere else, you can’t go near the water because of crocodiles. Was a bit appalling to see fishermen in the water up to their knees. We were the only ones there on the first night. Several others joined us the second but couldn’t be seen from our camp. We reconnected with Geoff and Liz in Bamaga (as they didn’t stay in free camps), and started the trek back down south with a return ferry ride across the Jardine River. Drove to Captain Billy Landing, a national park (NP) campground on yet another beautiful beach. Finished the evening with a game of ‘Up and Down the River’ (cards) and in the morning said goodbye to our travelling companions as we are going our separate ways.
In the 1880’s a government geologist, Dr Jack, named the creek after his aboriginal guide, Captain Billy. This place name is a legacy of one of the early encounters between Aboriginal inhabitants and European explorers. In 1968 Comalco established an experimental cattle station here and we are camped near the remains of the wharf where they used to load the cattle on a barge to take them to market. The lease was surrendered to the government and the land became a national park. It is a beautiful area with colored cliffs and a lovely long white beach. We walked 8 km’s along the beach today, with no one in sight, and looking around I could almost imagine that the view hasn’t changed since those early explorers met Captain Billy. Along the way I think I saw a crocodile move from a sunny bank into a small lagoon adjacent to the beach. It’s always on my mind as we walk beside the ocean, never getting too close to the shore. We invited a Swiss couple we’ve seen a few times along the way over for a beer after our walk.
Before leaving Captain Billy Landing we had a long chat with fellow campers, Phil and Monica Coleman who are the founders of Auswalk, a walking company we have patronised a few times. It was a 5-6 hour drive to Weipa on mostly dirt roads, but ok. Had a nice seafood dinner in the outdoor takeaway at the Weipa caravan park (CP) watching a lovely sunset over the Gulf of Carpentaria. Weipa was another catch up/stockup stop, where I spent a lot of time on skype with family, did laundry and got groceries. Drove to Mapoon, a small, remote aboriginal township 90 km’s north of Weipa to meet Leon Yeatman, a friend of our friend, Steve Garrett. Leon is the CEO of the Mapoon Aboriginal Shire Council and we had an interesting chat with him about Mapoon, the history and local issues, and the fishing, as Leon is a keen fisherman. Mapoon was visited by the Dutch in 1606 so is known locally as ‘first contact country’. To get there we drove on the Mission River bridge, an 825 meter (half mile) long one lane bridge where you have to look to see if anyone is on it before you start.
Geologist Harry Evans (no relation as far as I know) discovered bauxite on aboriginal lands at Weipa in 1955 and mining began in 1961. We did the ‘Mine and Town Tour’ which was very good and taught us a lot. Bauxite ore is found in a layer up to 4 meters deep, so its on the surface (after top soil is removed) and loaded into unique Weipa haul trucks. Then it’s washed and screened, railed to ships and taken for processing into a white powder called alumina, and then processed at smelters into aluminium at places like Gladstone. Those haul trucks drive on 200km’s of haul roads and local traffic has to stop at crossings that intersect with the haul roads. The mining operation is highly computerized and uses a complex gps system which monitors and controls all vehicles and machinery. The most interesting aspect to me was that the land was mapped and surveyed before mining, the trees, seeds and animals are taken out and rehoused for later, even the top soil was saved, and then after the mining is done, the top soil is put back and the land is revegetated with whatever was originally there. The mining company, Rio Tinto, is working closely with the aboriginal communities who are the traditional owners of the land being mined. Weipa is a mining town and people can’t work in the mine unless they live in Weipa. 25% of mine staff are women and 25% are indigenous. Weipa is quite different from the other towns up in Cape York because of the mine, and what that has meant for infrastructure in the town, in terms of sporting facilities etc. One of the man-made lakes, Lake Patricia was a ‘must do’ stop just for the photo with the sign, as was Evans Landing. There are beware of croc signs everywhere and our guide told us the population is 4100, each person has two pig dogs, and the crocs feed on feral pigs and pig dogs so they are kept pretty full. Interesting to visit but…………….
We continued our jouney south with a long driving day to Sweetwater Lake campsite in Lakefield NP, arriving just before dark and having the campsite to ourselves. Lakefield is Queensland’s 2nd largest NP and features vast river systems with spectacular wetlands. Before leaving our campsite we were visited by about a dozen cows and calves and a wallaby. The drive through the park took us to Nilford Plains where we photographed various termite mounds (magnetic, bulbous and dome mounds), then a beautiful lagoon and hundred year old mango trees at Breeza Homestead, and catfish waterhole where we didn’t manage to see any crocs. We checked out the riverside campsites at Hahn Crossing and unfortunately did the 4 km Discovery Walk at Kalpower Crossing-very hot, not much shade and nothing to discover! Ended up staying back at Laura as we were booked in to do a 1pm tour to the UNESCO listed Quinkan Gallery rock art site. As it happened the tour left at 3:07pm since the guide got bogged on the morning tour and returned a bit late! However he was an excellant guide and the galleries were really worth seeing. There were five galleries together which according to our guide, Steve, were the location for the initiation ceremonies (circumcisions and chest cutting) for the 13 yr old boys. The art was clear and with our guide’s help we could see some of the older art that has been layered over with new art. That said the art is estimated to be over 29,000 years old and is rated by UNESCO as one of the top 10 rock art sites in the world. Very useful to have the pictures pointed out and the stories explained to us. The images are of Quinkan spirits (good ones and bad ones), totem animals and people. It was a very rough half hour drive over a rocky and sandy 4WD track- without a guide you would never find the site. The late start meant we finished our drive to Cooktown in the dark but we made it in time to check in and then go out for a nice dinner. Back to Cooktown where we started our Cape York adventure.