We were up early, got packed and set off for Cairns at around 10am to deliver the Hyundai Getz to the rental company. After insisting to Adam that we needed the car to be spotless on its return to the rental place, I forced him to stop at a garage so we could hoover the inside. Then the guy had half a look at the full petrol gauge and told us that all was good, and we left! Moving what felt like 20+ bags out of the Getz and under a shop canopy in the torrential downpour made for a somewhat stressful and tense few minutes, especially when we kept remembering things we’d put in the glovebox or under the chairs. The airport shuttle guy was great and gave us a lift to our next hire car depot – it was absolutely bucketing it down so we were extremely grateful. The guy had never stepped a foot outside of Cairns, as he proudly said ‘born and bred!’ so I guess little reason to leave if you love it!
Our new rental, a 4×4 Toyota Challenger is an absolute beast. When sat in the drivers seat it feels like a double decker bus…. and sounds like one! You could hear us coming, and going. The roof pops out the top to form our top bed bunk, with velcro windows for the breeze (which was nearly non-existent some nights)! There’s a fridge, kettle, toaster and all the cutlery you could want! There’s another bed on the lower deck as well! Plenty of nifty ideas for storing the essentials – and absolutely no space for anything else. With two backpacks, food and bedding to deal with, space was limited. If we both got into the truck around the ‘living space’ end I found my nose near enough in Adam’s hole regardless of which way we tried to adjust to get some elbow room. But, for $5 a day we were more than happy with our bargain find! Delivering the truck in Darwin by Thursday will take approximately 2800km, 30 hours and we had time to stop along the way! If you know where to look for the travel deals you can find some great ones!
Our first leg was from Cairns to Townsville, which on the map seems backwards as it is in totally the wrong direction, south easterly, and we’re meant to be heading west. The reason for this is that there are only 2 routes when travelling from Cairns to Darwin. Route 1 via unsealed roads, which means gravel, sand or any surface except concrete. These roads can be susceptible to flooding during wet seasons (summer/autumn months) and can be impassable at some points where the road is a metre or so deep in water. Though we have a 4×4, and could handle the conditions, the high chance of getting bogged in the dirt and needing to wait for a passer by with a tow rope to winch us out, put us off that direction. Instead, we chose the sealed roads route. This takes us down to Townsville, through Charters Towers, Cloncurry, Mount Isa, Tennent Creek, Katherine and on to Darwin – with all the small towns in between. And when I say small, there is one gas pump, 1 telephone box (both of which may or may not be functioning), a church and a school – though who attends these is debatable as the only living beings in these towns were the other drivers passing through. The gas is too expensive to stop and fill up, nearly 40 cents extra per litre, so we usually hold out until a slightly larger town where the price is lower than the previous but still higher than the usual! The town might as well capitalise on those long distance drivers passing through, nothing else does. Along the way there are creeks signposted every couple of miles or so. Named after something nearby, e.g. Eight Mile Creek, Dingo Creek, we then came across BIG MARIA creek and decided we would name our new vehicle after it.
Our drive began in the wet tropics so we experienced extremely hot beating sun and torrential rain intermittently for 4 hours along the Cassowary Coast. We unfortunately did not get the privilege of seeing any wild Cassowaries, not through lack of trying. After our trip around the Habitat Zoo we had learnt about the Tree Roo and where they like to live (high nitrous soil areas, often bulldozed to farm sugar cane), so it was great to see that they had Tree Roo crossings over the top of the roads, on which the Roo’s could climb up and along in the safety of height, well away from the road. Seeing all the mountains, lush green trees and dealing with the constantly changing windscreen wiper speeds, we were definitely kept awake on the long roads. We stopped half way at a ‘Driver Reviver’ station which is a fantastic idea as it provides free tea, coffee and biscuits for drivers who are feeling tired and need a wake up! John and Vicky were volunteers from the town of Tully and enjoyed their one day a week out on the road meeting and greeting the passers by. We stopped here for a 20 minute rest, mostly to pet Princess their sausage dog puppy, but also to keep chatting to the elderly couple who were trying really hard to understand Adam’s accent. Adam did all the driving (the big truck is a dream come true for him, I think) and we made it into Queensland’s second largest city, Townsville, just before 6pm. In search of a supermarket for some water, dinner and snacks we did a couple of loops of the city centre trying to find a Coles / Woolworths. Not only are we in a large 4×4, we are also a driving advert for the rental company that the truck belongs to. BRITZ! So yes, we are a signpost for where to find the British tourists in the outback. Being about 2 metres higher than any other car around us, all the locals stopped to have a gawp at the BRITZ coming through and continuously looping around the roads trying to find the turning for the Woolies. It being Saturday everything closes at 6pm. So there we were, standing at the automatic doors waving, jumping and stamping but they were not opening. We arrived at the grocery store a whole 10 minutes after it closed. Instead we got a footlong Subway each, bottle of water and found ourselves a campsite to sleep in. Townsville town and country lodge – aka. a field intercepted with a train track on the corner of a busy road – but it was somewhere safe and away from the bustle of the city centre. After over half an hour of trying to make the electric points work (to be fair, we were trying our luck as we had only paid for a non-powered site) we gave up and just decided to use the secondary battery to power the fridge and camper lights over night. We parked and re-parked Big Maria a few too many times and we were sure Peter (the only other temporary camper on the lot) was getting a bit frustrated at our lack of decision making. There were people occupying caravans, but the ‘temporary’ structures looked a little too well set up for people on the move. With anti-possum fences stapled to the sides and DIY holes in the side of the caravan with and air conditioning cubes poking out the side propped up with some sticks, it didn’t look like they would be going anywhere soon.
The night sleep consisted of frequent trains honking their horns on their way through the city, probably every hour they would come soaring through – no horn needed but honked anyway. But despite the noise and excessive humidity we slept quite well! We also had enough food resources from our previous week for toast and Nutella, and a peanut butter & jelly sandwich (essentials). We also picked up a bag full of goodies from an older British couple who had arrived at the rental pick up at the same time as us but to deliver their vehicle back. Vegetable oil, kitchen roll, foil, coffee, so many handy things that meant we were set up! We had driven far enough out of the city to see the green luscious landscape turn to a brown, dry sparse land with a Kangaroo carcass every 10 metres. We had not yet seen any wild Roos since we left Port Douglas. We arrived in Hughenden at around 3pm filled up the Diesel to avoid using the sub tank just yet, and stopped at our second Driver Reviver station where the lady and her daughter taught us about the Eagles being the biggest hazard for drivers and therefore roadkill victims here as they like the roadkill already lying in the middle of the road and don’t make any attempt at flying away until the last second when they are inline with your grill. Hughenden is another example of a small town where there’s no-one around, but we learnt around 900 people live there, mostly grazing cattle where their land exceeds thousands of acres and don’t like to be referred to as farmers (farmers only contend with a few hundred acres at best). Richmond was our next town, famous for Kronosaurus Korner; wherein remains have been found in the surrounding area and so the money here is made from tourists seeking out fossils. Billboard signs line the highway advertising the dinosaurs, ‘douthinktheysaurus’?
The drive along the outback is beautiful, with wildlife left right and centre (mostly centre). Eagles are everywhere moving at their own pace, despite Adam’s attempts at flashing (the lights) and tooting them out of the way. He spotted Camels and Emu’s just roaming around the desert type land. You can see for miles around you, and only now and again does another truck pass you by – usually waving from the wheel to say hi to someone in the same shoes as them / the first person they’ve seen for an hour or two. Toilet stops are quite frequent, with many laybys that have picnic tables with shade to pull into for a rest if needed. There’s about 150km between each town so if you need to go, you’ve still got to go when you get the chance – my fear of having to drop my drawers roadside to relieve my bladder fortunately did not become a reality. The journey took us through a number of small towns (some just a gas station, but in their town leaflets boast acres of farmland and amenities that are not visible to the untrained, foreign, eye), the size of the font on the map, you’d think, helps to dictate what to expect at each location, large meaning more than one gas station, here’s a run down: Charters Towers – a high street that is totally closed on a Sunday, all bar FoodWorks which charges triple the price of anywhere else in the country and has a 12 year old serving on the till. Hughenden – a town with a Driver Reviver station, a few competing gas stations (for what seemed to be who can charge the most), small but friendly little town. Richmond – a town based solely around the discovery of dinosaur remains and signposts every 2 metres to let you know about the discovery trail available for tourists, plastic dinosaurs are dotted around the pull in bays so obviously we made the most of the photo opportunity!
Julia Creek – we arrived Sunday evening after the event of the year for the town – ‘the dirt and dust festival’, though we missed the main event, if we had we arrived any earlier in the day the campsite would have been full and we’d have had to drive to the next town in the dark (a further couple of hundred kilometres). Julia Creek is the famous home to the Julia Creek Dunnart which is a small rodent type species, so remotely found that it is listed on the endangered and protected list for Australia. A definite claim to fame for the small town. We experienced winds of around 30km/h overnight which made the roof tent of Big Maria seem like it was going to take off – alas we survived the night and hit the road early.
Cloncurry – this was our original destination goal of the previous day, but luckily we didn’t sleep here. The town was a long strip of gas stations and small local shops that offered a range of peculiar items that you would never need on a drive through the outback. There was a Woolworths though, so we stocked up on water, groceries and cookies (most importantly). There were many Aboriginal families dotted around the main street, not doing much but just watching life happen. It seems disrespectful to say, but knowing that we are the aliens in their hometown made us feel somewhat intimidated as we roll through with our bags full of shopping and huge BRITZ camper we look out of place and lost.
Mount Isa – a town that seemed more of an actual city compared to anywhere we have travelled through so far. A mining town, in which there is no mountain, despite the name. Mining still being at the forefront of the income, you can take tours of the old mines, historic underground hospital or take a walk through the local shops. We took a trip to the library, where coincidently there was free wifi….there was also a free book table so we also lucked out with that and picked up a good read! We drove up the vertical hill to the lookout point where you can see over the whole town and across to the huge mining works, on top of this area is also a signpost listing the direction and distance to all major cities in the world, and also the equator (only 2307km away!). At this point we learnt we were 1307km from Darwin, so just over half way through our journey!
Camooweal – the place is as strange as it’s name. The local pub only served alcohol all day (bearing in mind only truckers, who are driving, stop here), until 6pm when the restaurant opened, so we were forced to go to the local roadhouse. We were met here by a statue of a kangaroo with bull horns….we don’t know either….and a very British girl who was working in the middle of nowhere to save money. There was an inside joke painted on the wall here about being 5 years and 30 minutes ahead of the Northern Territory, so naturally we just took a photo and continued on our journey.
The State Line – two huge signs stand facing each other dictating the end of Queensland and beginning of the Northern Territory. It only took us about 3 hours to realise that we were 30 minutes out of time by our watches, Uk phones and laptop. The GPS is the only thing that told us a different time as it was the only thing receiving signal from the world outside the outback. Unfortunately this slight change in timezone meant we had another 30 minutes of driving to do and as the sun set the chance of seeing wildlife on the highway increased – and we’d rather see the wildlife alive than scraping it off our front bumper. The race was on to the next campsite. Alcohol is a huge problem for many Aboriginal tribes so in some areas of the Northern Territory there are restrictions in an attempt to limit problems.
Barkly Homestead – instead of making it to Three Ways, due to the loss of light we needed to set up camp for the night, the British girl here also working for her 2nd year visa, over-complicated the camping facilities so we ended up working it out ourselves and through speaking to a lovely old Australian couple who regularly camped around the outback. Adam had driven nearly 700km in one day – I ungratefully slept some of the way, in-between being head DJ – and he needed to get some sleep! Barkley Homestead is typed deceptively large on the map as a place to stop – considering what it offers. We pulled into the gas station at first as the GPS said we were close, then realised that the gas station is the entire facility, with a small restaurant, pool that you can jump across and a campsite out the back. So far this was the only time we popped out Big Maria’s kitchen facilities to cook our dinner, a very large portion of Tuna Pasta followed by a generous helping of chocolate. We were lucky to have stayed with a couple in Melbourne that gave us access to their cloud full of movies and tv shows so we’ve been watching a different film every night, tucked up in our sleeping bags in the tent roof of Big Maria.
Three Ways – quite literally what it says it is. A T-junction where the East-West road meets the North-South road through the outback. Here there was an Irish girl, who explained that the portraits covering the walls of the pub/restaurant of the truck stop were of all the truckers who pass by regularly. They did atleast have a cocktail of the week: Beer! At this junction we stopped travelling West, and started heading North.
Renner Springs – we were met by 3 peacocks at this truck stop, along with another Brit who was coming to the end of her 2 years in Australia and was looking to just save money before she returns home in November – quite smart really as there’s nowhere to spend money and the wages are double of what is it at home!
Mataranka – our end point for the day, with the highlight of the day the natural thermal pools found so close to the town. We did expect this town to be on the same level in size as Mount Isa, but it was more on a par with Camooweal. It is, however, home to some very large magnetic termite mounds! We stayed in a campsite near the Bitter Springs, but instead chose to visit the Mataranka Thermal Springs as it was further away from croc territory – or so we thought. The pools were light blue in colour and at first moderately warm, but once you get out, get nippy and get back in again it’s ideal! Like a bath – just with additional bodies of people that you don’t know. The water is shared with all sorts of monitor lizards, fish and frogs, so I was on high alert for these but never saw any. After getting a much needed wash in the high mineral level water, we walked along the path following the flow of water to the river and found croc infested water signs where under no circumstance should you enter. You’re never too far from a croc!!
Katherine – very similar to Cloncurry in the high population of Aboriginal families living in the town centre, with us, the outsiders, looking somewhat out of place. We made the most of the Woolworths and planned our dinner (we got confident and went for Chicken stir fry). We now know that it’s important to have an option for dinner as without this you can guarantee that wherever you end up at the end of the day will either, not have a grocery store at all, or the one it does have will be closed. So whenever we see a gas station we fill back up to full, and usually buy something that could masquerade as a meal and not perish in the heat.
Kakadu National Park – seeing as we were ahead of driving schedule, Big Maria needs to be delivered back between 10-3pm on Thursday and with it being Wednesday and we were so close to Darwin, we detoured to the Kakadu National Park as a few people had mentioned it on our way through here and it seems silly not to go while we have a vehicle as otherwise we’d pay more in either public transport or a paid tour – neither of which we are keen for as they don’t involve the word ‘free’. This is still our favourite word. We drove past forest fires all over the national park, at first we thought maybe we should alert someone as they were massive, but soon learned that it was ‘normal’ for the wet season and that they are often started intentionally to manage the bush.
On arriving in Darwin a day earlier than the drop-off date we thought we’d just find a campsite and get set up for a good night sleep. We drove through the town of Humpty-Doo – yes Humpty-Doo exists as a real place here – and is home to the famous Humpty-Doo Hotel (of which only Darwinians are aware of). Gas prices were cheaper again now so Adam was happier again! It was about 5pm when we started driving past numerous campsites but continued on for the city centre in the hope of a quick tour around to find our feet, see shops and traffic and supermarkets and people, all things that we’d not seen for days. Instead we were met with 4 parrallel, empty streets in that we drove through in less than 5 minutes and we’d seen the city centre. What. That couldn’t be it? We’ve driven 3200km to get to Darwin, failed to look up what the city is actually like, and now arrived to find very little. This would be interesting. Due to the lack of anything in the centre of Darwin, we retreated away in search of a campsite, turns out there’s more life in Humpty-Doo (25km outside of the CBD). The sun was setting, we were tired, hungry and sweating and we went to 4 campsites that were either closed, full or apparently not a campsite and in fact a hotel (Leprechaun caravan park – you are not a caravan park, your name is deceiving)! We eventually found a place that seemed normal, with an out of hours phone to call the overweight manager in charge, paid the powered site rate and set up camp. Now, sweating profusely (this is by no means an under-statement) we got our chicken stir-fry marched it over to the camp cook site and found absolutely no power whatsoever. No lights, no kettle, no nothing. The sweat increased as we paced around in search for a switch or fuse box – again, nothing. Calling our overweight friend once again he eventually fixed the problem and dinner could commence at 8pm. Patience was getting shorter by the second, especially as the chicken had leaked juice into Big Maria’s fridge so everything needed a wash – my germaphobe radar was on overdrive. Eventually we got sorted and got cold showers before the most humid and sweaty night so far on our trip.
The next morning, we used our common sense for once and planned a trip to Woolworths before handing Big Maria back to the depot. We found our new Airbnb accommodation and dropped off all of our baggage and shopping before heading to hand her in. We added our left over bag of goodies to the shelving unit in the depot office where you could probably do your weekly shop, there was even a tent (tempted to have this for a home). She served us well, didn’t break down in the outback (massive bonus) and we were sad to hand over the keys knowing from now on we once again will walk everywhere. Thanks Maria.