Mt Isa to Tennant Creek (Friday, 7 May)
Eric was finding that his eyes were suffering and he was coughing excessively. Despite the mine taking extensive dust reduction measures, and the prevailing breezes, he seems to be sensitive to something in the air. Of course, the humidity in the Outback can be very low. We found low humidity a problem on several trips.
We had breakfast from our food box supplies and left the Burke and Wills motel just before 08:00. Jean did a tricky manoeuvre into a Coles Express service station, so we could get another 4 cents off each litre of fuel. Every bit of fuel from now on will cost more, usually heaps more.
We drove off past Lake Moondarra and the George Fisher mine. The speed limit here was 110 kph. We came upon yet another Lake Eyre water catchment area sign. Around 54 kilometres from Mt Isa we stopped at the WWII site celebrating the establishment of the road. To our amazement, we could still (just) pick up a Telstra 3G phone signal. The new road from Mt Isa to Camooweal is in excellent shape, very unlike our memories of it from 2004. The last section was done in 2009.
The countryside was green, thanks to good recent wet seasons. Also, we are travelling a little earlier in the year, closer to the wet season. The road train signs advise they can be up to 53 metres long.
Around 10:00 we reached Camooweal. Jean wanted to book a room for our return trip, but with several buses stopped, we turned back a block to the other service station, where we topped up with fuel at $1.65 (it will be worse later). Jean had a bit of an issue with a dog running down the street in front of the car. Too dumb to go sideways. Then we stopped to make our motel booking at the Shell Roadhouse (where fuel was even more expensive). We crossed the Georgina River, and were on our way around 10:45.
By 11:00 we had crossed the border into the Northern Territory, where clocks needed to go back 30 minutes. Road trains could now be 53.5 metres long. The road got a little worse, in contrast to Queensland roads usually being worse. The speed limit was now 130 kph. We continued driving through rolling grasslands (Mitchell grass) with scattered shrubs and very small trees.
We stopped to stretch our legs at Avon Downs, just across the border, with police station and not much else. The waterless toilets were made by Clivus Multron.
We stopped at Wonara bore around 13:10. We both thought this was where we saw a flock of small birds on a previous visit. The windmill here was missing, and there was little real indication of a seep from the bore.
The 13:40 lunch stop was Barkly Homestead, to eat snacks. We wandered around looking for changes from our last visit, and did not get back on the road until 2:10 p.m.
Reached 41 mile bore, with lots of bird life, at 15:10. We both agreed this bore must have been where we saw the flocks of birds previously. This time the waterhole looked like water was flowing.
As we approached Threeways, where the Barkly Highway meets the Stuart Highway, we saw figures on the road. A single vehicle with an Aboriginal group: an elder, around three other adults, and a flock of children. They explained they had run out of fuel, and wanted to get to a phone or an internet terminal for access to their bank. The explanation of what they wanted seemed a little confused to us, but you can blame language barriers. We were still a little out of the Telstra connection area for Tennant Creek. We rearranged luggage and offered to take one of them to Threeways, where the service station and motel had landline phones (and possibly internet access). After some mulling around, one of the women and a baby came with us to Threeways. We turned out to be even closer to Threeways than we expected, and reached it in a few minutes.
We left the woman to make her enquiries of the service station. When we were done, we noticed the car that was out of fuel had somehow managed to bring the entire group of Aboriginals to Threeways. We left and continued on our way. Genuine breakdown, or a gentle attempt at scamming some fuel money?
We drove south into Tennant Creek, where we refuelled at the United service station, since that brand is often cheaper than the major oil companies. Certainly it was way lower than prices at our previous few remote stops. The Eldorado Motor Inn was a little further into Tennant Creek. We were quickly settled into a comfortable deluxe room (newly painted, TV, and a comfortable new bed) by Jason. Jean had booked this motel because it offered free wireless internet access. We had a little discussion of wireless internet issues with Jason, since Eric had helped a couple of motel owners we know decide on WiFi as an inducement for guests. Alas, neither of us could connect to the internet. I found motel owner Jason, who by this time was working in the restaurant. He rebooted the router for us. Then we could connect.
Around 18:00 we wandered over to the bar for a pre-dinner drink. Jason suggested a Grey Nomad Shiraz, and offered a couple of matching hats from the wine company representative. We bought the bottle, and it was very acceptable. The $25 dinner in the Eldorado restaurant was a buffet, with a range of dishes. This was set up for the contractor workers living at the motel. Tasty enough, and the portions were so large we shared a hunk of chicken rather than each take a serve. Must say the curry was authoritative. The dessert choices were just the way Eric like them: gooey stuff he should not eat. He had a little pavlova, some of Jean’s cheese cake, and a chocolate brownie with some jelly and cream on the side. Wonderful. These appear to be prepared by a pastry cook the previous day.
The thirty or so workers living at the motel, and more across the road at the caravan park, are contractors building the new Aboriginal town camps. There are about eight of these camps being constructed around Tennant Creek.
Despite the internet connection at the motel, we could hardly stay awake after 22:00. We are simply no longer used to driving long distances. Not that many people think 600 km is such a long way.
Tennant Creek to Mataranka (Saturday, 8 May)
We waited until the contractors and the tour bus had ended their breakfasts, and then attended at 07:00. The cook was happy to make us poached eggs, bacon and tomato, to go with everything else. We were satiated when we drove off just after 08:00.
We drove through Tennant Creek to check out the main street. One interesting sight was a gaggle of geese walking along the footpath. Graffiti abounded on walls. Many stores in the southern end of town were heavily reinforced with bars or steel mesh. So for that matter was the Eldorado restaurant bar. This is not a happy look for towns across the top end. The news agency was not open, which sort of signalled that the Saturday morning papers did not arrive on Saturday morning. We turned around when we reached the motel at the other end of town, in which we had stayed when we last passed through on a tour.
We drove north on the Stuart Highway, mostly in 130 kph zones. We stopped at Threeways (Barkly Highway intersection) to take photographs of road trains and check fuel prices. $1.98 a litre. Ouch! Left before 09:00. We reached the nice little plateau overlooking Renner Springs around 10:00. Jean made a booking here for our return journey. Eric photographed more road trains.
At 11:00 we reached Elliott, the halfway point between Darwin and Alice Springs, 250 km north of Tennant Creek. We stopped to walk around, but did not find anything to buy. The United service station had reasonable prices ($1.80) for the area. Outside the town we saw an eagle crouched over some road kill. It hopped off the road but did not fly away, clearly intent on defending its meal. We got a little extra fuel, only 15 litres, but enough to ensure we could at least get to Mataranka.
We checked the Highway Inn, just before Daly Waters. The part next to the bar had been recently extended into a very nice grassed beer garden. It seemed to me the motel units had also been extended. Must compare our photos from this trip with ones taken on earlier trips.
We turned off the road to visit the historic pub at Daly Waters. The interior does not change much, except for having an ever increasing number of business cards pinned to the walls, and an ever increasing array of underwear hanging from the rafters. The outside is, if anything, even more eccentric than ever. Wonderful place to visit. I asked about the weather station. After some delay, we were told to try the airport. We went to the historic WWII aerodrome (Eric has landed there on a past visit), but despite some searching, we were unable to locate the weather station box.
The former fuel station at Larrimah was destroyed, collapsed like a giant had stood on the galvanised iron roof. I have no idea when that happened. We did not bother to stop, despite the potential of Fran’s home made cakes and pastries.
We reached Mataranka around 15:30. It looks like the United fuel station is out of fuel on all bowsers. Luckily the small town has two fuel stations. Whether they will be open on Sunday (or even early Monday) is another thing. We collected our room key at the Territory Manor Motel and Caravan Park, just a little north east of Mataranka. We have a very pleasant thick walled room constructed of something that looked a bit like adobe (probably rammed earth). As is often the case, the room lighting was inadequate, except in the bathroom. Luckily Apple laptops come with illuminated keyboards, so you can type in the dark.
When Eric recovered from the drive, he lurched across the grounds (just avoiding the peacock which seemed about as unfocused as him) to the bar and collected a couple of bottles of Coopers Original Pale Ale to take back to the room. We will have to remember to carry torches with us to dinner, to avoid the campground obstacle course.
Jean naturally had the wild barramundi for dinner, and there was such a slab of fish that she shared some with Eric. He had a vegetable and salad plate from the buffet, which was more than sufficient. When we finished our meal we were interrupted by watching Toodles, the office chook, who was inspecting the outdoor dining area.
Since the mosquitos and other bugs were biting, we pulled out our torches and retired to our room early. There we encountered a wolf spider hiding behind the tea cups. Maybe it can eat some of the biting insects? We had better finish the beer before the spider gets into that.
When we retired for the evening, we were annoyed to find a light flickering every few seconds. It was one of the two compact fluorescent light globes on the wall fixtures. Flick, flick, flick, every few seconds. So Eric got up and removed the globe.
Let’s see you flick now, he muttered. So the other CFL light fixture promptly started flickering. Grr! This is all because well meaning politicians set rules without considering consequences. An electrical engineer would have told them about this potential problem.
Mataranka (Sunday, 9 May)
Eric did the laundry while we are breakfast. He then went for a walk into Mataranka to take photographs before the day heated up too much.
The big event for us this morning was the barramundi feeding. The owners of the Territory Manor have managed to get barramundi eating pilchards, rather than live fish. So they do a feeding demonstration at 09:30 and at 13:00. We got some good photos of the fish eating from the owner’s hand. He also demonstrated catching and lifting a barramundi from the water. They seem used to this, since it happens twice a day. He called for volunteers to feed the barramundi. After a couple of children had a go, Jean fed some fish to the barramundi. She reports sandpapered fingers as the barra sucks its food from you with a great splash of water from their gills.
We drove to Mataranka Homestead to see if much has changed. It seemed perhaps a little older and more tired. The famous Mataraka thermal springs in Elsey National Park appeared to have had some additional work. There were a lot of people sitting in the water, which was a lot clearer than we ever recall seeing it. It appeared that floods and red bats had removed a lot of vegetation. You had a clear view of the thermal springs, and they were not nearly as shaded by vegetation.
As we returned we took photos of some of the many termite mounds in the area. There is a reason you do not want permanent timber structures in the tropical north.
After a great barramundi lunch we returned to see the afternoon barramundi feeding, to get more photos in the somewhat better light.
Late in the afternoon we drove further up Martin Road and visited the Mataranka Cabins & Camping place we had stayed at previously. They have extra cabins and a lot larger caravan park now. On to Bitter Springs, for the more natural and less known thermal springs there. We swam at Bitter Springs (well, relaxed in warm water really) for about an hour.
The only choice for dinner Sunday night is the roast, so we had the roast. It was pretty good. We also bought a bottle of Pepperjack Cabernet Sauvignon, which turned out to be an excellent choice. About the only thing wrong is we then had a fair variety of partially consumed bottles of red wine in our travel supplies.