Boroloola to Mataranka via the Limmen National Park
I’m sitting in a shaded area of the Territory Manor caravan park in Mataranka. It’s midafternoon and Astrid has just put on the water for the 6th cup of tea of the day. We are with some new friends, Liz and Scott (who have cycled here from Kangaroo Island) and a relaxed quietness has come over us, which is rare and special with people you have just met. I am feeling exceedingly happy, the reality of dust and corrugations from the last few weeks is already beginning to fade.
Let’s go back to the dust however. We left Borroloola feeling somewhat refreshed, filled with anticipation (and an alarming amount of fried eggs) about what lay ahead. This section – Borroloola to Roper Bar is set to be the most challenging so far. Firstly, it’s 400km without services, which means carrying 7 days worth of food and about 30 L of water most days, although we will obviously be able pick up fresh water from the rivers as we go along. Furthermore, we have heard many reports about the road being in terrible condition, so we really don’t know how many km’s we will be able to cover in a day.
As soon as we turned off the tarmac and were once again on the unsealed Savannah way I noticed a change in the landscape. It took me a few minutes to put my finger on it, but then I realised that this part of the Savannah way primarily runs through the Limmen National park. The difference is quite remarkable. Although the scenery is much the same, open woodland, savannah, termite mounds and rivers, the country looks a lot less worn. I can only surmise that this is due to the absence of cattle in the national park (although there are some feral buffalo). Much of the previous Savannah way traversed through large cattle stations.
It certainly was a pleasant change cycling through this lusher, greener country. Unfortunately it wasn’t long until the fresh feeling disappeared with the rising temperatures. We are both feeling generally fatigued now, which is compounded by the tough roads and hot weather. It’s nothing that a week or two off the bike wouldn’t fix; Darwin is certainly in our consciousness now. Luckily we reached Battern Creek early and had plenty of time to relax, drink tea and read before needing to swing into our evening routine.
It’s taken us a while, but our morning routine now runs like a finely oiled machine (most of the time) and we usually pedal out of camp at 0700. Mostly this has to do with the unpleasantness of riding in the heat of the day, which we can’t completely avoid, but at least this way we get a few hours of coolish cycling. Some days on the road just suck and that second day out of Borroloola certainly tested us. It started off fine for me, but Astrid was really suffering from the word go. She described her bum as being excruciatingly painful (like someone poking it with knives) to the point of tears (and Astrid is one tough lady). This made coping with the corrugations, heat and thoughtless drivers that showered us in dust almost unbearable. My heart really went out to her and although I tried to help, I think I didn’t quite succeed in my efforts. When Astrid is down, it tends to infect me, which is not helpful and I need to find the thing inside me that can rise above that, to actually be of some use. It’s something that Astrid does a lot better than me.
The afternoon wore on and the cycling got worse. It was a constant zigzag across the road to avoid the corrugations and bulldust pits. Our hourly km’s plummeted to a dismal 10-12km and we were often walking through deep sand. To top it off, as I hit a particular bit of loose sand the Green Fairy began to wobble so I decided to bail, putting my foot down. Unfortunately I had misjudged my speed and the weight of the bike and that momentum caused me to have an intimate relationship with the ground and my whole right side was covered in fine dust. Until that moment I had been holding it together but the fall bought me unstuck and I shed a few tears of exhaustion and frustration before pulling myself together.
To our great appreciation, not long after the dust pit encounter a kind traveller pulled up to have a chat and then presented us with two ice-cold beers. I can’t describe how great it tasted. It seemed after that our luck turned and we finally reached our camp at the “southern lost city” after 8 hours on the go. “Lost cities’ are pillar like rock structures that started forming 150 million years ago when vast parts of Australia were beneath an inland sea. They looked beautiful as we set up camp to the setting sun but it was the next morning that we really got to appreciate them. We were up and walking amongst these spectacular formations just as the sun was rising. What made it even more beautiful was that everything was shrouded in a fine mist. It gave the whole place and eerie, magical feel and I really felt I was walking on an ancient land. Both of us agreed the previous day of doom had been worth it to see this.
The day continued to be such a contrast to the previous one. First of all Astrid had a hilarious encounter with a Dingo that darted out in front of her and then continued to watch her as it proceeded to run straight into a tree. Ah, Astrid and the animals. First a head on with a kangaroo, now causing a poor Dingo to run into a tree! Secondly, our day of cycling ended after about 30km as we had decided to stop at Butterfly Springs. What a gorgeous spot. A real oasis in this often harsh and dry landscape. The source is a natural spring and the water cascades down a small waterfall into a clear pool, with a sandy floor. Just off to the side is a rock wall, covered in hundreds of butterflies. We spent the day by the spring, our water filtering by in a tree (loving the gravity fed filter), reading, writing and napping (my personal favourite).
A half day off is nearly as good as a rest day and we set off early, ready for corrugations, dust and sand. The morning treated us kindly with only moderately bad roads. But this is Australia, which means we better mine the fuck out of everything, and where better to put a mine but in the middle of a national park? For us this translated into absolutely shocking roads (think walking through massive sand pits and endless corrugation) thanks to the mining vehicles chewing up the surface. While most workers passed us (showering us in dust) a dude in a massive crane thing pulled up alongside us and shouted out the window,
“Are you girls lost?”
Astrid said, “No, are you?”
Evidently they found us quite amusing and ended up giving us a big bag of assorted fruit and muesli bars. Needless to say we were delighted.
Lying next to a fire beside the Towns River (far away enough from the crocs) and looking up at sky filled with stars in the middle of the outback fills me with such peace. Life is simple now (even more than before) and is filled with achieving our basic needs; finding somewhere to sleep, finding water, collecting fire wood, filtering water, cooking, pedalling. Rest periods are filled with writing, reading and observing nature (unless we meet some friendly nomads). The ebb and flow of this existence and its meditative simplicity is something I treasure. Like all things in life, it will pass. Soon we will be back on the highway, there will be more distractions, more people. Then Darwin, full of friends and family. I look forward to those changes as well as appreciating the magic of what we have now.
After Towns River it was onward to shiny Tomato Island, a new camp ground recently opened by Parks NT. It was right beside the Roper River and the ranger was raising an orphaned joey that we briefly got to babysit. What a gorgeous creature. We both fell in love. I also got to see my first crocodile, which was kind of thrilling. These prehistoric creatures have been on our consciousness for weeks now and it was almost a relief to see one because when it saw us it reversed off the riverbank and swam away. Probably that’s mostly what they do, only out here you are constantly aware of stories about people being eaten and stalked by crocs. They had become a kind of monster in my mind.
The whole way on this section of the Savannah way we have been following signs to ‘Roper Bar’. It was where we could next pick up supplies and where we would know that the hardest part was over. To us it had become a destination. What an anti climax. I know we are in southern Arnhem Land, I get that it’s remote but Roper Bar was really rather lame. Just an overpriced general store down a 3km stretch of road with nothing in between (why the 3km?!) and a camping ground not even anywhere near the store. The highlight was eating a 2L tub of ice cream to celebrate completing the most challenging part of the journey so far. And we did get to see a road train stranded on the actual bar, which was kind of entertaining.
The next day and a half of riding into Mataranka was a bit of a slog. We had come through the scenic and difficult part and now we just wanted to be there, soaking in the hot springs and drinking a beer. The cycling was hot and we were both in need of a rest day. We did have a bit of a celebration on reaching the bitchumen! What a bloody relief. I’m definitely happy not to see corrugations or sand for a while! Finally, mid morning of the second day we hit the Stuart highway. It felt amazing. Half way across the country on the toughest roads either of us had ever cycled. The dust, corrugations, fatigue and sand of the last few weeks paled in comparison to our sense of excitement and achievement. Things only got better as down the road we not only met Graham and Gilda again but also another cycle touring couple, Liz and Scott. We were delighted. There is something truly wonderful about meeting people that instantly get you because they are doing exactly the same thing. No explaining, no crazy looks. They had even heard about us from other travellers. It’s that minor celebrity thing again, which is quite funny. It appears not that many women cycle the Savannah way.
Without much hesitation we all went and did our shopping (wow so much food!) and then sat in the park and the six of us shared a 2L tub of icecream. It goes without saying really that the rest of afternoon was spent in the shade, sipping beers and sharing stories. What wonderful, like-minded people Liz, Scott, Graham and Gilda are. An incredible way to end this section of our adventure.