October 2014
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Month October 2014

Gulf 3

(track on previous post)

We headed back towards Camooweal and then north to the Gulf up a sandy corrugated track to start. This is a good section


A lot of it was deepish sand. It was about 220 miles to Gregory Downs and about 50 required full concentration. We nearly lost the rear-end (interestingly) a few times. The K60 sucks in sand, but it was all they had in Mount Isa. It was a full day.

Sand shot. Too busy to get off the bike.


We’d heard that Gregory Downs marks the last time going north you can go in the water, whether sea, river, stream or billabong. Everything north has crocodiles. Just a few hundred yards past the village


Strip in under a minute and in we jump. Not cool enough but a life saver. The second best swim we’ve had since Galvins Gorge.

The water appears out of a huge spring back in the Northern Territory before making it here. Not even benign fresh water crocodiles


The narrow channel here had a strong current


Finches in the reeds on the bank. there are always beautiful birds no matter where you go. There are also a dozen species of deadly poisonous snakes in this part of Queensland. We have no idea where they live or what to avoid, but the locals don’t seem to think they’re an issue


The excellent roadhouse at Gregory Downs


The next day we had a short ride to Burketown very close to the Gulf. We were getting excited. Strangely the roads around Burketown are paved


Off we go


This is the territory we’re crossing to Karumba. The whole of Eastern Australia east of the hills and north of the desert drains into the Gulf here. This is one of many complex river systems and crocs swim up all the tributaries. Crocs almost define Northern Australia, everyone talks about them with fondness and fear. Everyone has stories. It’s how we start conversations, asking something about them. We ask: So are her crocs in the water here? Can I go for a swim? They say: NO! Huge crocs! Hundreds! every time. It’s great.

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We pass a cattle pond


With a very special aquatic plant in it


Close up. It’s frilly


Then a river


A shame we can’t swim in it. It’s over 40C again


We walk across creased rock to a valley we see, a little downstream. There’s a Wallaby in the middle of this shot, if you squint


This exact spot from Google Earth


On a slab there’s a whole skeletal Wallaby fused to the surface


To a gorge


The short paved stretch to Burketown


This is cattle country and some of the biggest spreads in the world up here. Regular stations have an average (I’m told) of 20,000 head and the largest go up to 100,000 head on a million hectares. A geologist told me happily that a station he was on the previous day looses one head a day to crocs.

I was reading the history of some of the cattle stations here. For example in 1907 James Emerson was exploring up here and found some land he thought might make a good cattle station. So he arranged for a starter herd of 1026 head to be walked from Lismore, 2000 kilometers away. It was a 16 month journey, only 560 head made it, but it was considered a great success.

Below, hundreds of cockatoos over the cattle


Big horns on this one


Across another river


An area of fused rock that looks volcanic, but that can’t be, so a mystery


Another river. We’re crossing one every 30 minutes


We see some big birds on an island up-stream


Head up a small road to get closer. A crop of them flying away at the sound of Lucinda


A flock of them in the sky


Into Burketown. We stayed for a couple of days as it was fun too.


Where they had a hockey net for a garbage collection site


The next day we rode the spectacular Savanna Way to our destination


One of the many little bridges we crossed


Another species of termite. There are over 300 which explains the variety of mounds


High speed perfect dirt made for Lucinda.


Into Normanton which maybe the biggest town on the Gulf. I didn’t like it and cruised through


From Google Earth. This is a big town up here, the biggest on the Gulf. Further inland there’s virtually nothing. We’ll see that in a couple of months or so.


The have a life-size model of the world record Croc which was shot here, Guinness certified. It was 28’6” long. That’s my bike helmet on its head


But Normanton had a nice gas station


A quick 50 mile blast past


To Karumba (pop 518), our 2nd major destination after Darwin


We rode straight down to the water. Due north is New Guinea


Mangroves along the shore


Karumba is built on an alluvial flat. The rock is sedimentary fused seashells and silt


A good variety


A catfish skeleton, with its 3 poisonous spines intact


Mom, child and pelican watch dad fish


Gulf 2

Wiser travellers have gone home. We’re almost in the hot part of the hot season and waiting for something called ‘the build-up’. This is the most dreaded time of year up north. It’s the transition period between dry and wet seasons. The humidity goes through the roof to 100% and with 45C/112F temperatures it’s unbearable even for the locals. When the rains start the oppression actually drops somehow and life changes to just miserable heat and cyclones. We haven’t seen a rider in weeks and people are looking at us strangely. Nearly every single person asks us if we’re OK and aren’t we hot. They like this drama and we end up in long conversations. They all have a story to tell about the heat and the places they’ve been or are going. Australians love to talk about Australian extremes. Nothing makes them happier than talking about crocodiles for example. Except sports and the upcoming Melbourne Cup, come to think of it.

But bad news. Our route along the Gulf Coast, has a new problem for us. The Hell’s Gate roadhouse is closed. This means a 449 mile ride to Normanton with no gas and possibly no water. We calculate we need 20 additional liters of gas and 20 of water and there’s no way we’re doing that, even if we found the way to carry it, on dirt. So we ask around and figure out a new way back onto the route via Camooweal, which has a dirt approach from the south back onto Savanna Way. It’s an additional 600 miles to our route. But it works out fine for a few reasons, seeing our new places and then Australia’s token hell hole (by local consensus) being two of them

The track, a little over 1000 miles
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Nothing much is different but heading back to Cape Crawford through Borroloola we see a cattle station just off the road

There are different types of cattle up here, depending on what we have no idea. We haven’t seen this type before

But the odd thing is that the termite mounds have been built up around the iron fence posts. We wonder what the time scale is here

A close up

In Cape Crawford, population around 50, is a famous roadhouse with cabins called the Heartbreak Hotel

The cabins are super deluxe so we rent one. Normally we don’t blog about places stayed or non-riders met but this was the nicest place we’ve stayed in the outback

Inside the roadhouse they have a big chalk board with the top ten stupidest questions asked here and the #1 is why is this called the Heartbreak Hotel? or #2 is why is this place called Cape Crawford with no sea and no Cape? so we obviously don’t ask and there are no fellow travellers to ask.

The next day more of our usual landscape. The speed limit in the Northern Territory is 130kph, dropping to 100kph in Queensland down the track. But we’ve never seen a cop on the road so ride at the maximum sustainable for the 90 minutes between stops and a bottle of water

On the road to Barkly Homestead from the north

We passed this shrub again

The flower

There were a series of large windmills, some spinning

Some not


We found a shade tree

After 100 miles or so we gained a little elevation and started across the huge Tablelands

It was brutally hot. We passed wallabies hiding under small trees

Which ran away when I stopped

And passed another small shrub, this one just maybe 6″ off the ground

The flower

From Barkly we headed ESE into Queensland towards Camooweal (population 185). There’s an Australian song about Camooweal but I haven’t found it on-line to link to here. As it turned out we really liked the village and stayed a few days

The town looks like this

The awesome pub with a veranda

A typical elevated house

Camooweal from Google Earth. Red earth under everything

Other than the great people and terrific situation (surrounded by nothing for 100’s of miles) what really made it special was this. The trees were stuffed with Cockatoos and Gulahs

The beautiful thing was that at about 10 each morning they would fly the skies over Camooweal from horizon to horizon

Sometimes they would fly with their own species. The Gulahs


Or the Cockatoos

Close up

But when they flew as one huge group, thousands of birds, they would start screaming with a volume beyond belief.

And if a stray crane or eagle came by some would follow that, as here
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It was wonderful.

Around Camooweal, and once-in-a-while elsewhere, people dress the termite mounds. Sometimes with just a t-shirt, sometimes also with a hat. Usually this is done close to the road


Sometimes in groups or two or more. I’m not sure exactly what the reason is, we keep forgetting to ask, but there’s one very strong effect: at night under the stars or moon they’re scary, which is a cool effect

The night sky here is incredible as you can imagine. There’s no atmospheric pollution, no light pollution for about 1000 miles except Mount Isa a couple of hundred miles away, and the air is dry.

It looks like some of the t-shirts have been here for years. The mounds have grown around them

Up close

A field of mounds

Then on to Mount Isa to get a new rear tyre. Mining town, shithole

Gulf 1

*The blog ‘going private’ is having to wait until we get a new website up. The fine print in WordPress says if this goes private only WordPress users can ever log in, making it a hassle for my family and support crew*

And, warning: nothing much happens in the outback on this side of the country to post about. It’s kindof the same thing over and over again, but a great thing.

The track, about 800 miles
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The first stop on our way to the Gulf of Carpentaria was Batchelor, center of Australia’s huge parakeet population, so we’re told

A quiet town, the houses are single storey and set back in the trees

One highlight is Virgin’s Villas, the nunnery. We make a point of slowly riding by, trying to look casual a few times on our way to the general store and back over the last couple of days and don’t see any pretty nuns at the windows to wave to. I suppose a thousand long distance riders have done this before

Some drinking bowls laid out for the parakeets by a local bird guy

Bob, the bird man, has a large aviary he keeps rescued birds in. His hobby and passion. He’s had some of the damaged birds here for 30 years. Wingless or legless, they’re the ones that can’t be returned to the trees. We spend hours over a few days talking about them. He has a story about every bird.

The Gulah above the cage won’t leave without his one-legged mate. He’s been with her here for 8 years

The trees are full of birds


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Our first twisty road since south of Fremantle
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We ride into Litchfield Park for a swim at Wangi Falls to cool off but everyone else has the same idea and so we pass

Inviting though

Mermaids I’m thinking

A local paper the next morning berates a father for taking his family out in a boat here smaller than the local crocodiles. So I guess you’re not even safe in small boats

Batchelor is close to the end of the green belt as we happily rode back into the outback.

The outback is the name for the dry inland 85% of Australia. The huge percentage of people in Australia live along the coast in the same way as the huge percentage of Canadians live along the 49th parallel. But rainfall drops precipitously away from the coast, unlike Canada, and the outback population is tiny. Alice Springs being the exception with 25k people.

We ride past a field of termite mounds called ‘magnetic’ because they’re thin and aligned north/south. In fact the termites have built them this way for temperature regulation. But they’re rare and this field is fenced off


Plenty of shade trees. It’s 42C/108F again

We pass through Katherine again

On our way to Daly Waters

Then the distances open up and we take a single lane road east to the Gulf of Carpentaria to the beginning of the Savanna Way at Borroloola

Even out in the middle of nowhere the road trains roar by. We leave the road and ride the shoulder as they pass. We wave at each one, they wave back. It’s the same thing as in every country so far, the further from the cities you get, the friendlier the people

Long hot hauls

Plenty of cattle road kill. People have no problem eating fresh roadkill here, or so I’m told. No reason not to, we think

We pass a gigantic old tractor. The photo doesn’t show the scale of this relic which would seat a dozen people, but it’s huge and antique

We thought it was long dead but here’s a pic of the grooves in front to prove it’s alive

Very smooth white termite mounds here


Later, a water tank and a little shade. Lucinda’s in there next to the picnic table

Cold water. It’s hard to express how welcome this is. It feels like an unlikely miracle. We do the usual, take our t-shirt off, soak it and put it back on under our jacket. It’s a shock and fantastic, but the ventilation in the jacket as we ride dries it out in 15 minutes. But it’s great while it lasts

The one and only road cut we’ve seen in the outback

Miles of this later

Close to Borroloola there’s a big pond

More archer fish in the hot water

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Lilies in bloom

Cattle cooling off

Then through the town, population maybe 30, of Cape Crawford, with no Cape, to gas up at the only station for a couple of hundred miles in any direction

Then on to Borroloola, an aboriginal town

Where we get immediately breathalized, at 3 in the afternoon, along with everyone else, no exceptions. This is a troubled town we’re told

But they have an excellent looking little restaurant that evening but the food was crap, which is unusual. Every pub menu, every one, has the same top item: Chicken Parmigiani, or parmi for short

The next day it turns to sandy corrugation to the Gulf

Except for a couple of big bottomless holes. Famously called bulldust. There’s no riding technique that works. It’s deep deep dust, as fine as talc, and even the best Aussie rider thrashes through it. If you don’t see it coming (and it’s sometimes hard to spot) you will crash, 100%. This was my first bulldust day of several

Here’s a hilarious photo I stole off an Aussie website. The bulldust is shallow here, so the guy on the right is trying to ride through it. You can see where the problems end, about 20 feet from the camera. But as you can see his bike is out of control, his left hand has just left the grip, he’s being thrown off the right side of the bike and he’s about to have an epic crash, lol. The guy on the left is doing the smarter thing and paddling his bike with his feet along the side. I have tried both, paddling is the way to go, solo, so far. But I get a little braver every time

Through a wasteland

To King Ash Bay

And the river, 20 miles from the sea. We can go no further without a boat. It’s the end of the season, hot, the travellers have gone home south, and the two charter operations are closed

Looking sadly towards a sea we can’t get to

King Ash bay is in the exact middle of this Google Earth pic
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