Page 8

Wycliffe Well, Tennant Creek, Daly Waters and Katherine

Wycliffe Well

Leaving Alice Springs, we set off on the five hundred kilometre trek to Tennant Creek, breaking our journey with an overnight stop at the Wycliffe Well Roadhouse. Wycliffe Well claims, in its advertising, to be famous for its UFO sightings. We can't comment on that other than to say we didn't see anything unusual. We did notice that the Stuart Highway south of Wycliffe Well was littered with the carcases of dead kangaroos, all the way back to Alice. However, north of Wycliffe Well there was not a single one! Why would that be? Scared away from the road by aliens, perhaps? Or could Road Kill Stew be a delicacy on some distant planet?

The owner of the Wycliffe Well Roadhouse is something of an entrepreneur. Despite the only available water being underground, he is in the process of developing a lake. Half of it already contains water and is stocked with many fish and yabbies (freshwater crayfish).

He has built a small railway around the lake and a free train leaves at four o'clock every afternoon. We joined it for the ride. It didn't so much roll along the track as jerk, bang and rattle. The seats were hard wood - not a train to ride if you have painful haemorrhoids. The track was not yet complete so instead of looping around the lake, the train had to stop and reverse back to the station . . . except that it got stuck. A spare sleeper had been left alongside the rails and the track must have settled a little when the train stopped, sitting the chassis of the second carriage on the sleeper. So half the male passengers, with much merriment, lifted the jammed coach while the other half got down on hands and knees and dragged out the offending sleeper. Then all those who were still game to ride the train re-boarded and rattled backwards around the lake. If some of the more timid passengers were nervous, the driver seemed more so. He spent the journey leaning out of his cab watching the wheels of the coaches as if he couldn't believe they were still on the track. Neither could we - it certainly didn't feel like it!

Next morning, not long after leaving Wycliffe Well, we came across a spectacular rock formation known as Devil's Marbles.

Devil's Marbles

Our 'rig' parked at Devil's Marbles in the Northern Territory

Millions of years ago these large boulders had all been below ground. As the softer ground around them eroded and blew or washed away they were left exposed, some of them in precarious positions balanced one on top of another.

Leaving Devil's Marbles we continued north along the Stuart Highway and found thousands of termite mounds stretching away on either side of the road. They were up to a metre in height - a few a little higher. The area resembled an ancient cemetery where all the headstones had become eroded and discoloured by time and weather. Further north the mounds grew in size and complexity, some being two metres high with multiple spires like fairy castles. One resembled the madonna and child, another two Buddhas joined at the hip, and many were quite . . . well, phallic.

But these were as nothing compared to the termite mounds in the Kakadu National Park which we were to visit a week or two later. There, many of the termite mounds were around six metres high, dwarfing Mrs B when she stood alongside one. These termites - Nasutitermes triodiae, if you want to be posh - are commonly referred to as 'white ants' because that's what they resemble. They are blind (so, luckily, cannot contradict anything I write about them). Their hierarchy is similar to that of bees. There is the large queen which lays the eggs, the king which . . . well, use your imagination. There are flying females which become future queens of a new colony, there are workers (but no unions) and there are soldiers. Millions of these tiny critters build these mounds out of earth and clay; they are waterproof and fireproof. Termites break down fallen timber and dead grass, so serve a useful purpose - except when that timber is part of your roof.

Termite Mounds

Thousands of termite mounds lined the Stuart Highway. But they were tiny compared to those at Kakadu.

The next settlement we passed through was Barrow Creek. We gave this place a miss having received bad reports about it from several people. Its reputation wouldn't have been helped by the bizarre disappearance of the English backpacker, Peter Falconio, near there. Peter's girlfriend, Joanne Lees, reported that Peter had - against her advice - stopped to help a motorist one night. Not a good idea as it turned out; the man had a gun. She was allegedly tied up but escaped. The case attracted a lot of media attention at the time. A man was subsequently charged with Peter's murder though his body was never found. As I mentioned on a previous page, there is a rumour that the body is at the bottom of one of the many abandoned shafts at the opal town of Coober Pedy which we'd passed through about a thousand kilometres back along the Stuart Highway. If that is the case, the chances of it ever being found are very slim.

We noticed a similarity between many of the place names in the Northern Territory. So many consist of two words, the first usually being the name of a person and the second relating to water. For example: Tennant Creek, Daly Waters, Roper River, Wycliffe Well and Alice Springs. All in one of the driest places on earth. Of the dozens of creek and river beds we passed over along the Stuart Highway, not one had so much as damp patch until we later reached Katherine.
Tennant Creek

Tennant Creek, where we stayed for three nights, didn't inspire us. The town had sprung up after gold was discovered there - it was Australia's last big gold rush. The Visitor Information people tried hard to make it sound a fascinating place but had little to work with.

We had arrived on Thirsty Thursday, the day that welfare money is paid to the Aborigines. In order that their children have a chance of being fed, all take-out alcohol sales are banned for that one day each fortnight. The ban was imposed by the authorities, we learned, at the request of the Aboriginal elders. They also initiated a night patrol of their own people to maintain order and take care of drunks. All credit to them but again the majority is being inconvenienced because a small minority can't control themselves.

The next morning we visited the town centre and found the streets full of Aborigines. We noticed that very frequently the woman would walk silently ten paces behind her man. We'd seen the same thing in Alice and other places. There you are, see? There are things we can learn from them!

At the Tennant Creek Caravan Park there was a part Aboriginal man called Jimmy who put on different shows each night. Jimmy was a real character.

Jimmy, Bush Tucker Man

Jimmy Hooker baked damper and brewed tea for everybody on a large fire.
In the right picture he was showing us some bush food and edible grubs. Yuk!

He recited some poems that he'd written. I won't comment on the quality of his poetry, but the enthusiasm which he put into each recital had to be seen to be believed. During a poem about how his stockmen mates had removed a bad tooth for him, bush style, he rolled about in the dirt to illustrate the pain he'd been in. He was all the more amusing because he kept laughing in a high pitched voice and he only had two or three teeth left in his head. But Jimmy knew his stuff when it came to 'bush tucker'.

Daly Waters

Let me tell you a bit about Daly Waters. It's not a town or even a settlement, just a roadhouse and a pub situated about midway between Tennant Creek and Darwin where a repeater station on the Overland Telegraph had once operated. It's in the tropics, it's in the middle of nowhere, it's somewhere north of the Tanami Desert. There is a caravan park at the Daly Waters Roadhouse but forget that one.

Turn west off the Stuart Highway along a side road to find the Daly Waters Pub which has its own caravan park. That's the one you want!

Daly Waters Pub

There is a (permanently) red traffic signal outside the pub which is totally confusing the first time you arrive. Ignore it. Go into the bar to book yourself a caravan site before setting up camp.

The bar ceiling is festooned with items of (mainly) ladies' underwear supposedly left behind over the years and the walls are covered in jokes and all sorts of garbage to the extent that you'd be hard pressed to see the wall itself. A character called John shows you where to park your caravan and - in our case - invites your wife to go and live with him.

In the evening the pub serves a huge meal of beef or barramundi. If you prefer you can have some of each. There is a variety of salad dishes to go with it. Every evening there is free entertainment which consists of a very good country singer who alternates with bush ballads and some rather bawdy jokes. Part of his act is called the Wedge-tailed Eagle Spectacular. He produces two bantams - which he swears are young eagles - and has one or both sitting on his hat while he performs.

The licensee's son is also a very talented country singer. Young Patrick Webster is a performer to watch. At fourteen years of age he already has a very professional act and has won many awards.

Words can't replace pictures. To see more pictures from Daly Waters just click on: Daly Waters pub pictures.

We had only intended to stay one night at Daly Waters but out of compassion for the licensee we supported his bar sales a little too enthusiastically and one of us was unfit to travel next morning. I won't say who, but it wasn't Pam. However, the following day, after an evening on Diet Coke for one of us, we set off for Katherine, a town which was named after a young lady called Catherine (with a 'C'). It's true!

Katherine River

We were well and truly in the tropics by now and the low scrub and wide open skies had given way to trees.

Seven hundred kilometres after leaving Tennant Creek we arrived at Katherine, the next town. We knew the arid landscape was behind us when we passed over . . .

. . . the Katherine River.

The water was flowing swiftly, children were bathing and the countryside was rich and green.

The Low Level Caravan Park was certainly not 'low level' in quality. It was lush and green with exceptionally good facilities. We were greeted by a Straw-necked Ibis and a cheeky young Blue-faced Honey Eater (pictured lower).

Kite in Flight

Overhead soared flocks of Black Kites in the domain which had hitherto belonged to the eagles.

We had now been 'on the road' for six months and we were finding it hard to remember the names of all the friends we had met and where we had met them. This is, of course, was very embarrassing, especially since we frequently came across the same people further down the track. We had only been in Katherine a few hours and had gone for some supplies. On leaving a supermarket someone shouted Hey, Peter!. I looked at Pam to see if she'd heard it too. We both turned . . . and there was one of the friends we'd met at Coober Pedy, again at Ayers Rock, then briefly at Alice Springs. And could I remember his name? Thank God for Mrs B!
Wossis name? I hissed through the corner of my mouth.
John she whispered back.
So, being a master of wit and repartee, I called, Hey, John, what are you doing here?
The 'up' side of this situation is that most of the people we meet are also geriatrics so they forget our names too. Quid pro quo. (See? A Latin scholar too!)

Ibis and Blue Faced Honeyeater

Left: A rather wet Straw-necked Ibis paddling in the run-off from the lawn sprinklers he'd just showered under.
Right: An immature Blue-faced Honey Eater. The adults have a powder blue eye patch.

A visit to Katherine would not be complete without taking a boat trip to see the spectacular Katherine Gorge. There are actually thirteen gorges stretched along a giant fault in the earth's crust. In the wet season boats can travel from one gorge to the next but in the 'dry' tourists disembark at the head of each gorge and walk up the rocks to where another boat is waiting on the next level.


The first gorge was enclosed by rock and steep tree-covered slopes. The water was quite clear but too deep to see the bottom. I was unsure whether it was safe to lean out of the boat to take photographs in case there were crocodiles, but too afraid of appearing stupid to ask. (Yes, all right, I know!) Further up the gorge our guide pointed out some tracks in the sand on a small beach.
Those, he said, are crocodile tracks.
Question answered.
But don't worry he went on, they are only fresh water crocodiles.
Don't worry? Hah! As far as I'm concerned a crocodile is a crocodile. End of discussion!

Salt water crocs - the ones that eat tourists - can't get into the gorge because of the rocks lower down, he told us. However, later, just before we disembarked, he pointed out a cylindrical steel cage in the water.
That's a trap for saltwater crocs he said, Just in case any do get up the rocks.
So never, ever believe a tour guide, okay? They are always on the lookout for a good story to add to their repertoire and Ageing Pom eaten by crocodile would do nicely.

At the head of the first gorge we disembarked and climbed up to the boat on the second gorge which was much more spectacular. The gorge, not the boat.


The walls of the second gorge towered above us.

While climbing to the second gorge we came across some Aboriginal rock paintings depicting some people and an animal. With the best will in the world, any five-year-old with a crayon could do as well.

Rock Art

Ancient Aboriginal Rock Painting.
The figure on the left may be portrayed upside down to signify that he's dead. Certainly is by now, anyway.

Our tour turned back at the head of the second gorge. Other tours went on further but we decided two crocodile infested gorges were enough.

I nearly forgot; as we waited to board the first boat we could hear a screeching racket coming from some nearby trees. Closer investigation revealed the trees to be heavily laden with flying foxes (fruit bats) all hanging upside down, as is the manner with bats. I was so engrossed in trying to get a decent picture of them against the bright sky that I nearly missed the boat. The picture is reproduced below.

On the way back to town we called at the museum where we watched a video of the 1998 floods at Katherine. The whole town was waist deep in water. Attempts by the military to sandbag shops and houses were completely futile. There were some dramatic images of a four wheel drive vehicle that had been attempting to cross the road bridge when the bridge collapsed. The car was left tottering on the brink for a time but the water continued to rise and the car was finally swept away.

Of course, every cloud has a silver lining, and when the water was down to a safe level the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister of the Territory turned up with lots of television cameras to save the day.


Fruit bats hanging in a tree adjacent to Katherine Gorge. Inset is a close-up of one bat.

While we were in Katherine we saw a Saturday evening rodeo advertised and having never seen one we had to go. I hoped to be able to bring you some spectacular pictures of cowboys riding furious bulls with their back legs high in the air and mucus spraying from flared nostrils.

Bull Ring

Well, we certainly saw plenty of that, frequently too close for comfort, but a fast exposure was required to freeze the action and the rodeo lighting, though bright, was insufficient. Attempts to get a flash picture also failed because the stupid camera paused a second before the flash went off and by then the bull was gone. So, sorry, but you'll have to use your imagination on this one.

The blue gates out of which the enraged bulls or broncos
were released, carrying a cowboy clinging on for dear life.

Have you seen pictures on the movies of a terrified cowboy racing for the railings with a raging bull's horns twenty five millimetres from his haemorrhoids? He leaps the bars just in time, leaving the frustrated bull pawing the ground, snorting and tearing lumps out of the railings with his horns - sound familiar? Well, that's not just Hollywood, that's how it really is! Those riders are either very brave or very stupid. Probably a bit of each. So, too, are the guys who go in and distract the bull when it attempts to gore the fallen rider. It was a good night and an interesting experience.

All too soon it was time to leave Katherine and make our way to Cooinda in the Kakadu National Park. We were sad to leave Katherine, not only because the caravan park was so beautiful, but also because we'd met up with old friends there and also made some new. And, though it has no bearing whatsoever on our reluctance to leave, 'Happy Hour' (when drinks at the bar were discounted) lasted two wonderful hours at Katherine's Low Level Caravan Park.

Before leaving Page 8, allow me to insert an interesting picture of a crashed aeroplane that we came across while driving to the Katherine Gorge. There was no indication of how it came to be there but it had obviously been there for a while. Any ideas?

Crashed Plane

Registered VH-ANV, was it placed there? Did it crash there? And why?*

*When we revisited Katherine in 2008, we got to the bottom of this mystery. It's all on Page 67.

Footnote: This re-working of Page 8 was completed on 28 February 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.