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Monday, 8 May 2017

Journey to Katherine

Katherine (Northern Territory)
Distance Travelled:
280 km


After the hedonistic night before, the boys and I managed to sleep in until about 8:00 am. A longer sleep-in than that wasn’t for lack of trying, but it seems the same crowd that frequented the Devils Marbles also headed for a stopover at the Daly Waters pub. As soon as the first eagle had risen on the morning air, the majority of happy campers were up and revving their engines – ready to head off to wherever their hearts were pulling them. As with Daly Waters, we spent the time required to have a hearty breakfast, before lumbering forth upon the road. No need to rush these things, right? The road will still be there whether you’re first to leave, or last.

Besides, the boys still had a few travelling companions to play with (some even had Nerf Guns that were able to shoot their spongy projectiles high into the air – what young lad in his right mind could leave without trying those out!!). Having learned a trick or two from our stop over at the Devil’s Marbles, our ‘unpacking’ at Daly Waters had been minimalistic to say the least. So, striping off the beds and cranking up the leg struts, we were practically done and ready to rock ‘n roll!

Sure, there were a few other ‘pre-flight checks’ that need to be taken care of (no one wanted to have a repeat of the dangling trailer-plug incident) – but other than forcing the boys to wash their face and brush their teeth, we were off.

There wasn’t much to report from the drive between Daly Waters and Katherine, other than our brief stop at Mataranka for lunch. Having been keen to get going in the morning, we also hadn’t bothered to make lunch for the day. So, an hour or so later, when Ben spotted a sign for ‘Mataranka’s best pies’, we knew our gastronomical dilemma had been solved. Pulling into the part service station, part grocery store, part hardware store, and part bakery, we found –  to our disappointment – that there was only one pie left… apparently, the last batch of pies had just been snatched up by a flock of hungry Americans on a great big bus touring this section of the vast red continent. With three hungry boys looking forlornly at the lady behind the counter, she smiled with a mixture of glee and a slight smirk, and said that a new batch was just being cooked, which would be ready in about 20 minutes. Perfect! Just time to wander around the town (such that it is); see the giant sculpture of a termite mound, find somewhere to spend a penny, then waltz back to the servo where we found three pies being slid into brown paper bags ready for us to pick up and head off on our merry way.

Sure it’s big – but wait a few days and you’ll see some REAL termite mounds this size!

Piping hot, these lamb pies were laced with red wine, herbs and onions – all encased in soft and fluffy buttery pastry. Straight from the oven, they were like eating napalm – but that didn’t stop us gingery taking nibbles and blowing vigorously into the bite sized hole in a forlorn effort to cool them down enough to eat. Despite the odd blister, they were indeed truly delicious! From our brief walk around Mataranka, poking our heads into each of the pie selling vendors along the way, they certainly (by far) deserved of the moniker of “best pie in Mataranka” (if you’re ever in the area, drop in and grab one – you won’t be disappointed!)

Not much to see, just good pies and a turn off on the highway to a set of amazing hot water springs

Noshing down on these hot buttery pies, we suddenly wanted to stay here for the rest of our trip. But, unfortunately, Mataranka wasn’t our designated destination for the night. But don’t worry, running a gravy soaked finger down the pages of our carefully planned itinerary, we noted that we were to come back to Mataranka tomorrow; to visit he hot water springs. Perhaps, even perchance, to sample such delectable treats again in the light of a new day. We could only dream of what filling would be on offer then!

But, for now, onwards we travelled. Further north, bellies full and quite satisfied. On we went, past vast grassy fields, squat scrubby trees and termite mounds as far as the eye could see. An hour later we arrived at Katherine. Not quite a city, but bigger than most towns in the Norther Territory. Turning right at Woolworths, we meandered slowly down a long stretch of road towards our final destination: Shady Lanes Caravan Park. Pulling up at the reception, we were greeted by a very chipper woman, who was a wealth of knowledge regarding Katherine and the surrounding areas. Unfortunately, after a lamb pie filled lunch and an exceptionally long drive, much of the information was lost on me, as I just wanted to know where to park up and whether the water was safe to drink.

And this was just and average sized one!

Shady Lanes was indeed true to its name. After the hubbub of Alice Springs no more than a week or so before, this was a refuge for weary travellers wanting to escape from the noise and chaos of other road warriors. Palm trees rose over head. The grass was lush and green. Ferns and cycads flourished in this sunny and humid oasis. And….

…oh my, was it ever humid. The thermometer on the car said it was 33, but my body had no doubt it was in the mid 40’s. Having quickly set up the camp trailer, I rushed inside to see what thermometer I stashed in the cupboard said – nope, still 33. Bugger!

Having lived in New Zealand for much of my life, I am well accustomed to the trickery that humidity plays on one’s sense of how hot it is. And so, breathing in a deep, watery breath, I suddenly realised why the world felt like it was treating me like an oversized dumpling and steaming me to death. “Man, this place is a bit muggy”, I announced to the boys with torrents of sweat already cascading off my forehead. Even in the shade of Shady Lanes, the air was oppressive. Wait until Nat comes back, I thought to myself, she’ll love this!!

The rest of the day passed fairly uneventfully. You know, basic necessities of life. Get shelter, gather food, cook, sleep.

But, nothing so simple ever happens in small town in the Northern Territory. Having set up out camper, the first thing on the itinerary was to gather supplies. “Come on boys,” I said “Let’ head down to the shops and get something for tea.”

Arriving at the local supermarket, it felt like we were walking into a paradoxically anachronistic, yet modern, shopping mall. A mix of very up-to-date shops (Coles, a Telstra outlet, beauty salon, and so forth) were surrounded by throngs of people wandering around – but never mixing. The main thoroughfare was flowing with whitey-white locals. But, clumped around the edges, were islands of local aboriginal people. Even the entryway to the mall gave me flashbacks to my time in South Africa.

Armed guards stood on sentry about this place. As my boys and I timidly scuttled by one such patrol vocally turning an aboriginal woman out of the complex, for taking something without paying. Listening in, it seemed that she and the security officers had danced this dance before – and no doubt would do so again in the future – as they all seemed to go about the process strictly by the numbers. “Ok, Miss” they said, “you know the deal. You’re banned for a week”. As we watched, ‘Miss’ put up a nominal protest and then, clutching her dinner, without much further ado, she left. Throughout all of this, the boys stayed closer to me in the supermarket then they ever have before in their lives. Eyes open wide, and noting the differences from our safe little haven 1500km away.

Even the supermarket had a different feel to it. There was a tension in the air that we hadn’t felt before. In contrast to Coober Pedy (which, from the tales I’d been told I had assumed would have been akin to a tinder box waiting to go off), that was now nothing to write home about (except for the odd blog post about having ID scanned when buying booze).

In the 45 minutes we were in the supermarket, we saw at least three people escorted out. Needless to say, as soon as we got in the car, the boys had a whole lot of socio-political questions they wanted to raise – even if they weren’t sure exactly what words to use, or what questions they wanted to ask. The focal point of their queries though was why the police women outside Liquorland had stopped everyone with dark skin and asked for ID… ”Why didn’t she ask to see your licence dad?”, the kids asked as we stood in line to buys some beers (while several people, who didn’t look like me were turned away).

After a bit of digging and causally chatting to locals about this, it turns out that the answer wasn’t as draconian or separatist as it may have first appeared. In actuality, the elders from several aboriginal communities in the surrounding areas have requested that the police to step in and help prevent alcohol related violence; through banning members of their communities from purchasing alcohol. From the locals I spoke to, it seems when the ban was first instituted it was a nightmare for shop owners to enforce this on their own – as such, the responsibility for safeguarding this embargo ban fell back upon the police.

As such, every liquor outlet in the vicinity of these ‘dry communities’ – at least for the foreseeable future (until, that is, they come up with a better solution) – needed to be manned (or womaned) by an armed officer from the moment they opened until the time they shut. Make of that what you will… but in navigating that conversation with a 7 and 10-year-old, I was glad of my training and 10 years-experience as a psychologist!

Heading home to our trailer, we had another merry night under the stars. As a bit of a treat Ben and I had steak sandwiches (in the style of Bahn mi), and there were hot dogs for Daniel. A merry night was had by all… that is, until the bugs came out!

Now when I say bugs, I imagine you are thinking of a few mozzies and moth or two. But, Oh Lordy, Lordy, how wrong would you be! Imagine this: Sun up = happy days; Sun down = BOOM: BUGS EVERYWEHERE!!

Picking the gnats out of out perfectly cooked steak, we quickly retreated indoors. However, inside our little trailer, we found there was little reprieve from the blighters. Most of these critters were small enough to wriggle their way through out mosquito nests and ended up swarming around the lights in the ceiling. So, out of desperation, we nuked the van with fly spray and switched over to our blue ‘non-fly attracting’ lights…

…In brief, these ‘non-fly attracting lights’ don’t work in Katherine – blue, white, green – there is not colour that doesn’t attract a bazillion critters. So, lights off, windows closed, this was how we spent the remainder of the night. As we lay there in the dark, sweltering in the sticky humidity, I couldn’t help but miss Nat and wish she was here to share the fun too!

A few hours later – sometime around midnight – I ventured outside and found that both the humidity and flies had largely subsided. These features of the tropics, had however been replaced by teams of Cane Toads and other of their amphibious brethren. These sticky little critters have evolved perfectly for such an environment; with their fleshy skin and penchant for moist environments. As that the boys were still awake (I mean, who could sleep in this heat!) we went for a wander around the grounds to see what croaking critters we could spot. In total, we saw 12 Cane Toads (boo) 7 tree frogs, a handful of geckos and various other denizens of the night. Returning to our trailer, we opened all the window covers, and a gentle breeze finally began flowing through the camp-trailer. In the end, we all got some sleep, amidst the chorus of croaking chirps…

…and a whole lot of mozzie bites.

Hurry back Nat, come and join the fun! It’s magic, really it is!

Bye ‘d bye,


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