We are currently right at the top end of this big, wide country of ours looking back over the last 3 weeks on the road. Without hesitation it has been the best segment of our road trip so far. This is partly driven by the consistency of the weather. And when we say consistent, we mean damn good. The NT dry season (aka winter) is really unbelievable for it’s warm (sometimes hot) days, clear blue skies and comfortable nights, day after day after day… It is quite empowering not even bothering to check the weather app to see if your plans for the next day will be spoilt, but low 30’s and dry seems like the only dish on the weather menu up here. But suggesting that the good weather was the only reason that this leg of the trip has been great would be selling the NT short. We read recently in a travel brochure that the NT is the beating heart of Australia, and this seems like a very apt description. While it is the least populous state or territory in Australia, there is a fascinating history, unbelievable natural beauty and a pretty special energy about this place they call the top end.
After entering the NT we continued ever Westwards on the Barkly Highway and pulled up stumps at the iconic Barkly Homestead. This ‘homestead’ service centre pops up on the landscape out of nowhere and is literally an oasis in the middle of the outback. To get the point across, a recent addition to their service provision is for light aircraft to land and refuel here. The facilities were great, including a pool and a modern looking beer garden that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the inner west of Sydney. To top off a successful one night stopover, we also met a family from the South Coast of Sydney. Their boy Charlie got us all together as he excitedly came over to chat because we had the same brand of caravan as them. He and our daughter Luca got on famously and, viola, we had some travel buddies for the next little while. It was definitely nice to have some people doing the same trip with kids to share travel stories and plans with, and also good to see the kids having a great time together.
The next day we had a short drive further West to Three Ways; a T intersection smack bang in the middle of Australia. We turned right and ventured North once again, now up the famous Stuart Highway. Only an hour or two up this road we found our next stop for the night at Banka Banka Station. In it’s heyday, this was one of those ridiculously huge cattle stations – 5180 square kilometres to be exact! With the homestead being close to the highway, it was a regular stopping place for travellers through the 1940’s and 50’s, and the hospitality of the owners was well renowned. It seems this philosophy has been passed on, as part of the station has now been turned into a sweet little camping ground. It has a number of fascinating aspects including a walk through native scrub to an outback waterhole, a great rocky lookout where you never get tired of looking at the horizon, scatterings of old farm machinery and a nightly fire-pit to gather around and roast marshmallows.
Another 2 or 3 hours further north the next day and we hit another iconic NT stopover called Daly Waters. The camping ground was out the back of the pub famous for what people leave behind. Inside there are collections of thongs, hats, money from all over the world and vehicle licence plates to name a few. Once we had pulled up, we thought that perhaps we had stumbled upon the dustiest place on earth. By the time we had unhooked the caravan our kids looked like they had been hiking in the Kimberley for a month – red dust was everywhere! We quickly told ourselves that this was all part of the authentic outback experience… and just as quickly forbade them from setting foot inside the caravan! A quick trip to the shower, and then the pool right off the main bar of the pub was in order. That night we took part in the legendary Beef ‘n’ Barra night. The food was delicious, and Sullivan, our rambunctious 2 & ½ year old made some friends with the grey nomads on the dance floor, much to his big sister’s embarrassment.
An early start beckoned the next day as we tried to beat the rush to a camping ground where it was first in best dressed. We hadn’t done too much of this hustle camping on our road trip yet, and it was quite the thrill of the chase with our new South Coast friends along for the ride. In the end we scored a great spot in what has been one our favourite places to stay so far. The Bitter Springs campground is located just outside the intriguing little township of Mataranka. The campground has a great bush setting, which is only a 10min stroll to the springs themselves. Despite the name, the springs are far from bitter. We’re talking a constant 33 degree water temperature, water that is crystal clear, all surrounded by tropical bushland. You can laze around in the top pool or let yourself gently float down the 150 metre river flow, walk back and do it again and again. In fact, the only bummer about this place was that we happened to be at the pointy end of toilet training with Sullivan. We had been encouraging him to tell us whenever he needed to go, and on a number of occasions we had to drag ourselves out of this pristine natural spa bath and trudge up the gravel track to the composting toilet in the very busy car park in what was fairly warm weather. As you can imagine it was a reasonable challenge to squat in front of the toilet with an encouraging look on your face as your toddler simply says, “I smell something” at the top of his lungs. The fact that after a short pause he would then pronounce “nothing coming” would make this side trip even more deflating. However, you will be happy to know that only a few short weeks down the track that the toilet training has been a raging success, and we are now a nappy free caravan!
It was hard to leave, but we had to push on further north and we hoped that the beautiful Bitter Springs was a sign of things to come. Our next stop was about 30km outside of the bustling township of Katherine in the Nitmiluk National Park; the entrance to the stunning Katherine Gorge. It was exciting to arrive at such an iconic landmark of this amazing country, and it didn’t disappoint. The camping ground was really well organised and had a great feel about it. It was all centred around an inviting lagoon pool and we soon had little wallabies, complete with joeys in the pouch, hopping up to say hello. The tours were also very well run operations. We did the dawn cruise and felt pretty damn lucky to see the sun come up on the huge ancient sandstone cliffs carved out over many thousands of years by the Katherine river. We also learnt stacks about the custodians of Nitmiluk, the Jawoyn people, and the huge significance this area has for them. On another day we ventured out an a 5km bushwalk with the kids, through the various landscapes of the park and up to the Gorge Lookout. This was an impressive walk, in impressive country, but it was also a pretty big milestone for this little city-dwelling family – a new PB by a long shot.
So that’s it for now. As you can see we have loved the NT so far, but there is a lot more to cover including Kakadu and Darwin. Check back soon to see how we got on.