18 – Across the top

img_6996From Fitzroy Crossing we were basically heading back to Queensland via Kununurra, Katherine and Tennant Creek. We spent the days driving, though I did get a chance to take some pictures.

Up here in the North, it's not just straight roads through endless plains

Up here in the North, it’s not just straight roads through endless plains

There's rain ahead

There’s rain ahead

Coming into town. It's raining.

Coming into town. It’s raining.

After the heat at Fitzroy Crossing, towards Kununurra we drove into a rain storm. It’s that time of the year, before the monsoon. Clouds gather and dump buckets of rain for a few minutes, then move on. In Kununurra that was a great thing because it cooled the air. We were told it was a stifling 39 with high humidity before the rain.

Kununurra exists because of the Ord River dam. In 2013 we took a trip down the Ord river from the dam. It was a terrific ride – well worth a diversion if you haven’t read it before. Go on, I’ll wait…

Great to see you back.

Right, on to Katherine. We did a great tour on Nitmiluk Gorge here last time. If you’d like to recap, once again, it’s worth your while. We have time…

There has been fire, and rain. Already the bush is regenerating.

There has been fire, and rain. Already the bush is regenerating.

Over the border into the Northern Territory. Have a look at the speed signs - end of 80, then a notice that says max speed in NT is 110 unless signed. And up on the bend - it's 130. (130 is generally the max in NT. There's a LOT of empty space and not much traffic)

Over the border into the Northern Territory. Have a look at the speed signs – end of 80, then a notice that says max speed in NT is 110 unless signed. And up on the bend – it’s 130. (130 is generally the max in NT. There’s a LOT of empty space and not much traffic). Until recently there was no speed limit – until a Japanese man crashed his Ferrari at 300kph +. He’s dead, of course)

The mighty boab tree, seen all over the North

The mighty boab tree, seen all over the North

Just - an awesome picture

Just – an awesome picture

Our accommodation at Katherine was… interesting. We stayed at a cabin in a resort. That was fine, we had our own bathroom – but it was outside the cabin. That is, not the sort of place you’d want to stay in if you’re into 2am widdles. It reminded me of my youth, where we had an outside toilet. Especially when it rained.

Next morning we were off to Tennant Creek. We would have preferred to avoid the town, but the drive to Mt Isa is just a bit too far.




Ord River buzz

The highlight of our visit to Kununurra was a trip on the Ord River. After all, without the Ord River, Kununurra wouldn’t exist. The town was created in the sixties, when one of the visionary Duracks, who originally opened up the area, persuaded the Government to dam the river. If you’ve been following my journey, you’d know that year-round water is a huge problem up here. There’s the Wet and the Dry, and the Wet is very, very wet and the Dry is very, very dry. In between there’s fire, which clears the land ready for the next wet. But traditional crops like wheat, cotton and sugar cane don’t grow like that. So a dam was built and Lake Argyle was created. You can read all about it here.

It’s hard to give an idea of size when talking about lakes and things. I’ve often heard descriptions involving Olympic sized swimming pools and football fields. But sometimes even they become insignificant. In Australia we have our own term of measurement – Sydney Harbours. Sydney Harbour holds a big lot of Olympic swimming pools (don’t ask me how many) so we have an idea that’s an enormous amount of water. Lake Argyle holds about 15 Sydney Harbours in normal times. At the height of the 2011 floods it held 44 Sydney Harbours and the flow over the diversion dam that feeds the irrigation area is also measured in Sydney Harbours.

Yes, there’s irrigation, but the other use for all that water is hydro electricity, which requires steady water flow over the turbines. So the line of isolated waterholes that used to mark the course of the Ord River in the Dry is now a fast flowing, all year river.

That’s it for context, folks. Let the journey begin. We caught a bus up to the main dam, stopping for a scenic glimpse of the lake. From there, we piled onto a jet boat – very fast, with very shallow draft to get over the shallow, rocky bits, but able to drift very comfortably in the deep bits. And off we went. The very knowledgeable driver stopped often to let us take pictures of wildlife and reflections.

A crocodile suns itself

A rock wallaby watches us from high on a vertical rock wall. They are very agile little critters.

Two pelicans sunning themselves in the afternoon light

This view was from the place we stopped for afternoon tea

Guys, this was the bestest trip. Loved the boat, loved the river, loved the red rock almost glowing in the sunlight, loved the reflections, the bird life, the crocs, the botany lessons. If you get a chance, go do it. And at the end, back at Kununurra, we watched the sunset from the boat.

An ancient land

It’s one of those truisms that nature doesn’t operate in straight lines but if you think about it, that’s not necessarily true. Rocks, in particular, often follow straight lines through stress and fractures. By their nature they form blocks which man then uses to build structures. Take the Great Wall of China, which is built of local stone and marches for miles across and around the hills in China. Today, that mighty structure – where it has not been rebuilt – is a jumble of rocks.

Now look at the picture above.

It’s so easy to imagine a ruined wall. But it’s an eroded hill, exposing the hardest rocks as the worn down material slides down to create the slope.

Or this one. Ruined castle, anyone?

When you look at pictures like this you begin to understand the essence of the Australian landscape. It’s old. It was old before the dinosaurs – before anything, really. Those rocks in the Nitmiluk gorge don’t contain fossils and I’ll bet these don’t either. These rocks are like the last remains of a long-dead beast, dessicated bones poking up through the ground. The soil here (if such a word is appropriate) is poor, lacking in nutrients. The vegetation is tough and resilient, able to cope with flood, drought and fire. In fact, though the aboriginal people never farmed and were nomadic, they certainly managed the land. They would set fires not long after the wet to burn the dried grasses at a time when the flames would not cause huge conflagrations. That happened in nature, too, fires lit by lightning. The dead vegetation was cleaned away and new growth rose in the ashes, food for kangaroos and other prey animals. And, of course, if you knew where to look, water was available, collected in pools in the great rivers, even if the water only flowed in the wet.

At Nimitluk, our guide told us how the people found crocodile eggs. Fresh water crocs lay eggs on sandy banks, burying them like turtles do, then just leave the eggs until they’re ready to hatch. The youngsters make a noise the females recognise and they come back to help the new crocs out of their eggs. Until then, though, the eggs can be harvested. The time for that is when the yellow flowers appear on the kapok bushes. The aboriginal tribes knew this place, the cycles of life, what they could eat and what they couldn’t. And they never destroyed. They never took all the croc eggs, they never killed all the kangaroos.

I want to finish this with a piece of work created by local aboriginal women. We call them ‘primitive’. But they can make something like this out of grass, and they can survive in this fundamentally hostile land. Their traditional lifestyle is totally different from ours but slowly slowly, we’re beginning to understand, just a little.