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Thursday, 4 May 2017

Striking out on our own: Devil’s Marbles & Daly Waters

Devil’s Marbles & Daly Waters (Northern Territory)
Distance Travelled:
920 km

Occupants in the car:

Bright and early Wednesday morning (19th April), it was finally time for Nat to pack her bags and head back to Melbourne for a few days to give her grandmother, Frankie, the send-off she deserved. Perhaps Nat might even write about her adventures in her own blog entry one day  – but, as the Anangu people of this region say, that’s her story and it’s not for me to tell.

So, with Nat turfed out of the car, we three likely lads were suddenly left to our own devices on a jolly-boys cross country tour. Although we were sad to be away from Nat for a few days, I must admit there was some glee in the boys’ eyes at being able to stretch out in the car, and the bed situation suddenly became a dream come true (three people snoring is bad enough, but add in a fourth and our caravan starts to take an almighty sonic kicking!). We soon found that there was also no longer a need to wait for the next rest stop to relieve whatever gas build up may have occurred whilst bumping down the road. Oh, you boys…

But, amongst these new-found freedoms, we were also plunged into a world without our chief advisor. The holder of the great itinerary, not to mention the only person who had actually bothered to do any research on what to do when we arrived at our destination, had disappeared from our lives – albeit temporarily. “Righty ho boys” I said, “So, what do we do now?”

The creeping realisation that dad was now actually in charge seemed to dawn quickly upon the boys and I could see the look of sheer panic spread across their face. “We’ll be ok dad,” ventured one little lad; probably more in an attempt to reassure himself than offering me any sense of comfort. “Can I sit in the front?” chimed in the other. “Sure,” I said, “here’s the map – point me in the right direction and tell me when we’re there!”.

And so, solemnly, we drove back to the campsite – to pack up and set off on our own. I’ve gotta admit, to took a damn site longer to pack up without Nat’s help – especially as the boys took off at the speed on light as soon as we pulled up at our caravan. “Hey boys,” I said “Any chance  of  hand….”. Needless to say, I didn’t see them again until (dripping with sweat) I managed to heave the awnings into place and get the trailer hitched to the car (with a spot of luck) ready to go. Don’t worry, they were both severely growled at upon their return.

Tyres pumped, fuel filled, snacks packed… Alright, I think we’re ready. One hand grasping the steering wheel, and the other holding tightly to Nat’s exercise book (aka ‘the bible’ – complete with lower case ‘b’), which contained all the details of how we were to navigate the next 1000km’s before she re-joined us again. And then we were off!

Scanning the itinerary, the next two days were to be filled with long drives and two quirky night time stopover destinations. Our first port of call was some 420kms up the road, to the forebodingly named “Devil’s Marbles”. From there it was a mere 500kms to our second destination “Daly Waters” – which was mainly a pub with a caravan site attached (well, a field and a few toilets to be more accurate). I’ve gotta say, these two destinations were magic! I know Nat would be sorry to have missed this part of the adventure.

With the boys nicely quarantined from each other in the car (Ben in the front and Daniel spread out in the back), the journey up the Stuart Highway passed like a dream. It’s remarkable how hard it is for kids to fight when there is a physical barrier (such as a front seat) between them. Since we had many hours to pass, I also chose this opportunity to introduce Ben to one of my favourite authors, Terry Pratchett. I tried to include Daniel too, but he shoved his ear phones tightly into his ears and pretended he couldn’t hear me (and he probably couldn’t with a mix of Michael Jackson and Weird Al Yankovic blaring in his ears). Before I left Melbourne, I’d downloaded the audio version of the Colour of Magic and we played this for hour upon hour as the scenery whizzed by – changing suddenly every few hours into spectacular new terrain. I think we may have a new Terry Pratchett fan amongst us!

Our first stop, on this part of our journey, occurred shortly outside of Alice Springs. For the most part, the rest area was quite plain and could easily have been missed; but, for me, it was somewhat momentous – if not a little bemusing for the boys. You see, shortly after 11:04 am, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn. Now, as I understand it, each of the tropics (Capricorn and Cancer) move by about 15 meters each year – so, I have little doubt that the marker point was by now a little way off. But, it was good enough for this little adventurer!

I remember, as a little lad, my folks had a big cardboard box of photos sitting under their bed. It wasn’t an auspicious or ornate box, but rather held together by old bits of packing tape and it contained a world of mystery and magic. Amongst the pictures of long dead relatives, photos of my own dad in knee high socks as a kid, mum with flowing maxi dresses and incredibly long ‘hippy’ hair (actually… the hair might have been dad too… I wonder where I get it from?), and bare breasted African women (mum and dad spent a year or two in Africa before I came along)… There was a photo that always intrigued me (even more than the aforementioned African women). It was a photo of my dad standing, with his long hair waving in the hot African breeze, beside a sign proclaiming that he was at the ‘Tropic of Cancer’. As a kid, I had no idea what that meant. In the photo, it was certainly dry, barren of life, and desolate. All of which added to its mystique no end! And now, I was exactly half a world south of where my father (and mother, who presumably was taking the photograph) was standing all that time ago. I have no idea exactly when that photo was taken (at least 40 years, as I’m pushing that age myself). Nor do I know how accurately I remember that image. Probably, I’ve distorted it in my mind over the years. But, what I do know, is that I was there at the Tropic of Capricorn. Like a family version of ‘collect the tropics’ we now had a full set. Perhaps in years to come, my boys will make the journey to the far north and continue the tradition of taking cheesy photos at the tropics. I’d like to think they might. I say, the first to the north and south pole wins!

The tropic of Capricorn. A destination I didn’t know I needed to reach, until I went there!

Late afternoon, we arrived at the Devil’s marbles – about an hour or two before sun set. Perfect timing! We had enough daylight to set up the trailer, stash the firewood we’d collected from a few stops along the way, and head up into the ‘marbles’ to explore. Now, for those of you who haven’t heard of the Devil’s Marbles before, let me give you a little description:

Driving down the Stuart highway towards our destination, along increasingly windy roads that meander through hills and dense scrub; suddenly, the road diverges and a track leads away from the steady hum and drone of the highway asphalt. There in the distance is a magnificent sight. Against a backdrop of yellow desert and pale blue skies, are stacks of round orange-grey boulders stacked in heaps on top of one another. And I’m not talking little Sisyphus type boulders here! No, I’m talking gargantuan rocks the size of houses – teetering upon one another, in stacks… Much like, one might say, mounds of marbles clumped together by some abhorrent immortal being.

The Devils Marbles – Northern Territory

To my surprise, and the boys delight, we even discovered that in some places these rocks were hollow. As such, the boys spent the remainder of the day finding places to hammer out a few beats and perform the odd song or two in the dying light.

The singing rocks of the Devil's Marbles

Then, as the sun went down over these marvellous marbles, we made our way back to camp – just in time for the boys to spot some kids they had met earlier in the trip – and away they went once again.

All set up for a spot of free camping

They came back in time for dinner and hung around with the promise of marshmallows being roasted on an open fire. The day’s collection of wood was stacked on the fire and a lovely time was had roasting marshmallows, playing the ukulele and chatting until late into the night. As the night grew darker and the fire dwindled into embers, the boys gawped at the enormity of the stars. There were so many stars that the boys soon lost track of the familiar southern cross and Orion’s belt, amidst the multitudes of lights shining in the inky darkness. We had a great time talking about the Magellanic clouds, binary stars, the possibility of life on other planets. Until the magic was broken by our neighbour for the night coming into our circle of firelight and warning us that they’d found a bunch of snakes in the toilets… With the majesty of the moment suddenly shattered, it is needless to say we henceforth chose to exercise our right to drop trousers on the back wheel of the car after that!

Roaring fire, under the stars.

Rising early, we were awoken by the dawn chorus of vans being started and trailers being packed down. It seems most visitors to the Devil’s Marbles don’t hang around when the sun peeks over the horizon. With two boys in tow, we took a little longer and sat down for breakfast before heading merrily on our way. The decision to wait half an hour was a good one, as flocks of eagles careened by the campsite – treating us to an early morning aerial display.

Majestic, but a bugger to get a good photo of.

Hitting the road again, we listened to the second half the Colour of Magic and stared once more out of the window watching the scenery whizz by. Today, our first stop wasn’t as poignant as the day previous; but an important stop nonetheless. 91kms up the road was Tennant Creek, and a petrol station with honest to goodness real toilets (minus snakes and spiders). The boys, it seems had taken the warning of our neighbour from the night before and had decided there was no way they were going near those loos provided. And so, it was with great relief that Tennant Creek welcomed us with open arms for both refilling and depositing.

Much relieved, we left Tennant Creek and set off towards Daly Waters. At this point, I have no doubt anyone who bothers to read this blog will be sick to death of reading descriptions of the gorgeous scenery. And so, I will spare you another tirade of superlatives and simply say the view from the window was mesmerising along the 500km trek northwards. One thing I did note, however, was that the scenery changed once again and started becoming more lush and thick the further we ventured away from the dry red centre.

Ben, Daniel and I pulled into Daly Water’s a little after 3:30pm. I know I used the word ‘quirky’ earlier to describe this place, but really that’s an understatement. Pulling off the Stuart Highway, we followed signs down a road that hadn’t seen much love in recent years. Navigating the pot holes and trundling along patches of gravelly road, we came upon a swarms of caravans and trailers lining the side of the road. The focal point of this gaggle of vans was the Daly Waters pub. A mix of poignant and lounge in cheek signs were dotted around the entrance to this watering hole. “Angle parking only” read one sign, “but we don’t care what angle”, it concluded. Strewn around the entrance were bits and bobs from travelling folks, such as number plates, odd thongs and pairs of underpants, amid a host of potted plants placed on every available space. Walking through the jungle of foliage, the bar itself was no less crowded with odd accoutrements and bric-a-brac. Coins of every denomination from the far corners of the earth lined the bar. Stamps, beer bottles, statuettes, postcards, flags, more thongs and underwear – all mixed together in a menagerie of memorabilia. The bar tender was just as quirky, and ever so welcoming to his house of oddities; complete with beer and a pool.

It's a nick nack, Paddy Black, give the pub a phone

For a mere $12, we were allotted a patch of grass in the field adjoining the pub, given a power outlet, and access to toilets and showers for the night. It wasn’t surprising the camp fees were so low, as the Pub was the only place to eat and drink for miles around. Happy hour started at four and the kids were keen to jump in the pool. So, after a quick dip, I sat poolside and had a couple of happy hour moments myself while I watched them splash about.

Just Kidding! (I wouldn't share my beer with those young hooligans...)

The bar also served a decent meal and after everyone had washed away the dust from the day in the pool, we dried off and headed into the dining area for a slap up meal.

Yummy nosh!

A live band was playing and the kids got into the swing of it – Ben even ventured forward to request a song. Unfortunately they didn’t know it, so they played ‘April Sun in Cuba’ for him instead. With everyone watered and fed, we wandered back to the trailer were the boys played and chatted a while before bed. I was able to spend a couple of peaceful hours sitting under the stars, typing away at my blog (I think I was writing Kings Canyon at the time), before turning in for the night.

Thoroughly satisfied, I drifted off to sleep, thinking of the last leg of our solo journey to Katherine in the morning...

...but, of course, you're going to have to wait patiently for that - while I digest this enormous meal!

Bye ‘d bye,


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