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40,000 kms and counting

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40,000 kms and counting

Binns Track is in the northwest of the Northern Territory... a rambling 2191km outback drive, beginning up north in the rugged, rocky, shale-ridden Gregory National Park - over on the Western Australian border - where 2-spare tyres are recommended and a number of local tracks are currently closed for whatever reason... something to deal with from time to time. Then we head east and south, down to the Davenport Ranges where to drive one 17km river section takes 2hrs. Yes, the track conditions vary, sometimes sand, rock or plain old bulldust, sometimes narrow with 2-individual  tyre tracks, sometimes road-train wide with no-go bog areas, serious bumps and ruts here and there.

We stop to chat on occasions, indigenous communities often close by, small groups camped along the track to search out bush tucker... wild bush beans and seeds being family favourites.

But today we are camped at Tower Rock - 200km northeast of Alice Springs - a recently created Conservation Area donated by a local station family. And after 8mths on the road - having travelled over 40,000km - it's another journey milestone.

Tower Rock is a special place, for us found almost by accident - a handful of mammoth, isolated but atmospheric redrock piles just off Binns Track,  mentioned in our WIKICAMPS bible with 3-reviews amounting to a rating of 4.8-stars out of 5, the surrounding scrub-covered plains melding with an endless red horizon... and at night just us, the rush of a  cool breeze among dark boulder piles, and a blanket of stars overhead.

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Postcard from Cobourg

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Postcard from Cobourg

From Kakadu and the  East 'Alligator' River it's a 4hr drive to Cobourg Peninsula's 'Caiman' Creek, although it's anyone's guess what those two reptiles have to do with Australia's Northern Territory... the drive beginning with an East Alligator crossing where the causeway is partially blocked with waiting saltwater crocs  - not alligators - the 2m to 4m beasties ignoring our truck as they wait for tidal change and the unsuspecting fish that follow.

At Caiman Creek we are about 550km east and slightly north of Darwin, getting here via a badly corrugated road, lined with bush and narrow at times.

The region is part of West Arnhem Land, returned to Aboriginal ownership in 1981, having first arrived around 40,000yrs ago and more recently seeing outsiders come and go... Indonesian sailor-traders, buffalo and croc hunters, pearlers, missionaries, tourists and fisherfolk of all denominations.

And it is just south of here that was thought a good place for a European settlement in the 1830s, even without a convenient supply of fresh water, an initial survey conducted at the end of the wet season and the British colonials being preoccupied with a perceived threat of Dutch and French expansion in the region.

A 43m long jetty was built, but wrecked by a cyclone the following year. A prefabricated building intended as 'Government House' was lifted off its stone pillar foundations and dumped 3m away.

Within 6yrs the settlement was struggling, with half the garrison - initially from Tasmania - crowded into the small hospital suffering from malaria... along with scurvy, influenza, dysentery and diarrhea.

And it is the ruins of 'Victoria' we are here to see, a 6hr round trip by boat only, including a 4km hike round the site.

Our guide is Travis, initially from South Australia, maybe 40, with a tangle of dark wind-tussled hair tied in a ponytail, a long-sleeved fishing shirt, football shorts and bare feet. Travis is well read, has worked "in mental health with Central Australian indigenous communities", and has been a tour guide in the Kimberley, Kakadu and Tasmania. These days he is based here, "married with family and a mortgage."

The first thing we see is a 20m high cliff - red and white - with what's left of the jetty below. Travis noses the boat into the shallows and on to the white sandy beach. He grabs a 1-ltr bottle of water... and an epirb - an emergency locating device. "The most important thing we have on board I reckon." He smiles. "Pretty damn isolated out here."

We look around, what is left being stone, the ruins including a powder magazine still intact, and what is left of the married quarters with Cornish-style round stone chimneys. There are also the ruins of 2-Quartermaster's stores, a blacksmith's, limestone kiln, hospital, kitchen and bake house.

The cemetery is a quiet, forlorn place, dominated by a handful of graves including that of an Italian priest who chose to live with the local Aborigines instead of within the settlement, and over on the edge of the jungle a tall stone spire dedicated to the wife of the longest-serving officer - Lieutenant Lambrick  - his 40yo Emma the much-loved matriarch of the settlement who died during childbirth in October 1846. 

Travis is quiet for moment. "Yeah, that was tragic really. But it seems the settlement limped along for another 3yrs, 'till the sickness and death of both the Assistant and Chief Surgeon... the last deaths recorded here."  

Travis shrugs. "Mmmm... odd that one... both the Assistant and Chief dying in the same year I mean."

The late morning glare is intense, and Travis' eyes narrow. "The books tell us they failed here due to ambitious trade hopes not eventuating." I must look doubtful considering the population never exceeded 70 souls. Travis smiled. "Well yeah, I know... they'd hoped that Victoria Settlement could be another Singapore... way out here. But supplies, were unreliable and infrequent, storing stuff in this climate difficult... I mean half the flour weight was weevils! And there was of course the disease, and the wild but mostly oppressive weather."

"They did have a garden I suppose, but the soil is not so good up here, and anything harvested was mostly eaten by rats."

"And malaria was the major killer here, spread by mosquitoes of course... but they never got what it was about." Travis shook his head. "The Aboriginal mobs knew it was mosquitoes that carry malaria. They took preventative steps, like using smoke, and smearing clay on their skin. But the Brits thought malaria was caused by bad air."

Travis has one child, with another baby on the way. He frowns, then gazes out to sea. "No kids made it through here, and I reckon the real reason the place failed was that it died of a broken heart, with the death of Emma Lambrick... and her baby, Emma having already lost her only son the previous year.

"I often wonder what happened to Emma's husband - Lieutenant Lambrick - him being second in charge and the longest serving officer here at Victoria Settlement until finally abandoned in 1849... him losing everything after being stuck here for 11yrs."

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Hard times at Cape Arnhem

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Hard times at Cape Arnhem

We are 1000km east of Darwin, our only access to here via the Central Arnhem Road, arriving at the turnoff late afternoon. Then it's still another 20km off the main track, with compulsory vehicle restrictions fair warning - "Vehicle must be 4WD with plenty of clearance, 2m max width x 2-1/2m max height."

On the descent from the escarpment the scrub crowds in, the sand deepens, tree roots and the occasional drift of rock add to the chance of a puncture. Our first glimpse of the water is between 60m dunes, the sand deeper and softer here. Our truck turns into a roller coaster, the steeper crests topped with slats of wood tied together and laid across the track to help with traction. Many of the connections are broken, with some slats impaled in a mess of white sand.

Finally along the beach we choose a path just above the waterline, the tide retreating for the next couple of hours. We pass the sacred site of Twin Eagles,  impressive pieces of rock joined to the mainland by sandbars. This is a wild coast, isolated and often windswept.

Our camp lay between stands of bull oaks where the slightest breeze sounds like the rush of a river, the ocean waves a constant wash, a timeless ebb and flow. A pair of osprey fish just offshore and sooty oyster catchers wander the wet sand. There are dingo footprints for the length of the beach. They seem small and delicate, their direction straight.

We meet Ron the fisherman, a tradie from Darwin. He fishes alone from the rocks here, has 5-rods and has "been here 4-times now." He has dark hair tied back in a pony tail and swims fully clothed in his shirt and jeans, "to cool off after lunch" he says. "Have seen some crocs, but never a dingo till now." Ron has no time for dingoes. "You seen the damage those buggers do?" He wipes loose strands of his wet hair away from his face. "Yeah, this one, she's small... probably has pups somewhere. They'd call her a fox down south."

On our first night any breeze is soon gone, the sea a breathing lullaby, the early evening a welcome relief from the normally sweltering sun. The full moon is late rising, finally lighting the dark, hilly landscape where our truck is nestled.

The next morning we lay low in the shallows, the tide out, the sun already hot. There is no sign of crocs. The dingo approaches from the fisherman's camp, stops and stares, not 5m away... then takes a measured step even closer, her delicate front paws now in the water. She's young, with a fine white muzzle and black nose. We can see her ribs, but her sand-red coat is clean, unmarked by mange or scars.

She sniffs the air and stares, her eyebrows white, those eyes brown and questioning, "Are they dangerous? Are they food... maybe some beached animal that could be dinner?" Her cautious curiosity is tangible, before she finally turns, gives us one last look, then resumes her business-like trot, off and down the beach before turning at some rocks, then disappearing up into the dunes.

That night we cook pork on the campfire, the fireplace a rusted steel ring in the sand, our burning logs within, half the top a cast steel grate.

Early next morning we finish coffee, and there is a movement in the corner of my eye. Then all is still by the makeshift BBQ. She stands still, neck stretched and nose towards the now cold grill, those eyes watching us. But the pork steaks are long gone, just a memory of last night's dinner with a bottle of Italian red wine, a dash of garlic and a kale salad with shredded Parmesan cheese.

It seems those eyes are accustomed to disappointment, and we wonder if there are pups secreted away in a den up the beach. We offer no scraps, and life seems tough for a beautiful animal that has been here for over 4000yrs.

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Postcard from Seven Emu

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Postcard from Seven Emu

From Hells Gate we drive 4hrs west across the Northern Territory border via the Savannah Way, part of Australia's National Highway One, although here mostly a red dirt and dust road of sand holes, bulldust and corrugations. The turnoff is a 25km track to 'SEVEN EMU',  a sprawling Gulf station of 1665 square miles right on the Robinson River... and a unique partnership with the AUSTRALIAN WILDLIFE CONSERVANCY.

OUR CAMP is perched on 30m red cliffs high above the Robinson, a favoured haunt of saltwater crocodiles, two 4m beauties making an appearance in the first hour. Later we gaze down on metre long queenfish that cruise towards the river mouth bounded by distant dunes on a wild Gulf coast.

For most of the day the wind moans through white cyprus pines and the afternoon sun throws a shimmering silver sheen over tussled river ripples. At night we listen to the ratchet drone of crickets, the splash of feeding fish, the cries of night birds and the crackle of the campfire - not a skerrick of wind now, and a never-ending magic carpet of stars. The air is cool after another 35degC winter day, the fire's smokey smell loaded with the perfume of dust and dry wood.

The old stockmen facilities are rustic... a flat iron roof on round wooden posts, a long drop toilet with sunset river views, and a 44gal rusted drum 'donkey' fire-fed heater for luxurious hot showers.

The owner of Seven Emu is Frank, a Gulf country Garawa man in his early 60s, with a knowing black face,  the wispy line of a mustache and white hair under a tussled black hat with wide Gulf brim. The blue shirt is of a Wrangler Western check, the worn jeans of faded denim, the slip-on shoes tarnished and dusty.

And Frank's a man who doesn't seem to miss anything, has a mischievous streak, his sharp eyes brown, narrowing now and then as if sizing up his audience. I ask about his dad, who bought this place, and Frank screws up his eyes, thoughtful as he remembers his father. "You know, the best advice he gave me was to always talk to the boss when doin' business... keep low and stay out of trouble."

I'm also interested in Ludwig Leichhardt, the famed German botanist/explorer who came this way in the 1840s, naming 'Seven Emu' after a successful hunt, before disappearing without a trace on the return journey. Frank nods. "Yeah... lot's come here interested in that bloke. Good man I reckon. Never shot a blackfella, and asked them about the animals, plants, and the lay of the land."

We take a rough, winding track in Frank's battle-worn Landcruiser ute, out to the old place... across sandy ruts, bumps and dried-out crossings - the homestead paddock deserted now due to a lack of reliable water.

Frank parks his truck and we make our escape from the searing midday sun... to a grand stand of mangoes reminiscent of a giant cathedral, tall thick columns of trunks, their canopies melding as one. Their shady shroud hangs cool and restful over what's left here - some tumbled-down shed walls, some crooked asbestos sheeting and the overgrown remains of his mum's vegetable garden.

Frank talks fondly of his mother, caring for the family and that vegie garden, but dying at only 61yo... and he points to one particular tree. "See that tree? I was born under that one." He tells a story of his dad leaving home, riding over 500km east to the Queensland frontier Gulf town of Normanton, with a young Frank in tow and his mum left home with a brand new baby. "Yeah, long way that trip, me just a baby." He smiled. "To give me mum a rest dad said. And with me just startin' to walk, reckon he should have got father of the year!"

Our host points to a depleted pond surrounded by scrub just below the paddock and we amble down to the water's edge. It's been a good wet season he says. Frank stoops down to pick up a handful of wet sand, holding it up and gazing intently at the palm of his hand. "In the old days, there were bugs and bait in this sand." Frank frowns. "But nothin' happenin' now." He falls quiet for a moment as a gust of wind rustles the mango leaves. He tugs at the brim of his hat with one hand, tossing the sand over the water with the other. "And, when the sand hit the surface the fish would always be comin' to the top back then... to see what was happenin'. These days, nothin' much goin' on there either."

I look at the pond, Sue and I both thinking the same thing - there are tadpoles in the water after all, so is that not a good thing? But Frank has been down this road with tourists before. "Cane toads," he says with a hint of contempt, then moves on to another story - when his brother and him encountered a giant crocodile. "He was a big one that saltie, maybe 6m or so... an old one for sure." His eyes follow along the sand bank where we stand. "We was camped on a bank, my brother and me, and this big fella rushed up with his mouth open. Lots of teeth." There's a smile from Frank, then a nervous cough. "Scared the hell out of us. Right between us he went, then just keeled over, dead. We found 20-toads in his belly."

We look at each other, then at Frank, more than a little depressed.

Frank is sad at what has happened to this country, the introduction of pests that degrade the land - from assorted weeds to South American cane toads, feral cats and camels - after 65,000 years the sudden neglect to properly care for the land.

But Frank is grateful for his good luck too, the Seven Emu pastoral lease purchased in 1953 by his visionary father, an Aboriginal, self-made, self-educated man with no entitlement to vote back then, and Indigenous Australians not granted full citizenship rights until 1968.

By all accounts FRANK'S FATHER was an exceptionally hard worker, a horse trader and cattle drover with a plan... striking it lucky by winning some money "on the horses", raising 11-kids and insisting they be formally educated... Seven Emu being the only pastoral land lease ever purchased by an Australian Aboriginal.

Frank smiles from the corner of his mouth, and his brown eyes sparkle. "You know what?" He leaves me no time to answer. "My old dad lived till his 90s, and always said that I needed to take care of country... that city fellas like you would arrive one day and pay me money to tell stories and show them around."

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Beyond the Bloomfield Track

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Beyond the Bloomfield Track

It's a day's drive from Cooktown to the 537,000Ha Lakefield National Park, finally setting up camp at Horshoe Lagoon, a serene patch of water covered in white lillies and a favourite haunt of brolgas, parrots and assorted waterbirds.

At the end of the day we meet a group of twitchers camped across the way, having also arrived from Cooktown. "You've come from the south," they ask, eyebrows raised, "from the Daintree, then Cooktown?" We both nod. "You saw the accident on the Bloomfield?" Ah, no. We know nothing of any 'accident'.

Our neighbours are visibly shaken and tell us a vehicle travelling south towing a large trailor-van lost control on a downhill section of the Cowie Range. "You must have seen it!" The driver was badly injured, they tell us, the van and vehicle wrecked, with stunned onlookers sitting around while awaiting an ambulance.

We look at each other but say nothing. As it happens, we did pass an ambulance travelling south that morning... but with no siren and no apparent urgency.

We spend a restless night, our sleep disrupted by wild pigs that grunt and slosh in the shallows just metres from our parked truck... us bothered by thoughts of the Bloomfield Track - with its river crossings and one particularly steep section through the Cowie Range - and us travelling that same treacherous section of the Bloomfield Track uphill, needing low 4WD and 1st gear, maybe minutes before the accident.

The next day we briefly pick up some phone coverage while travelling, a Google search confirming the injured driver was killed on impact.

Postcript - 30 June 2017 - At Laura, Queensland, for the Cape York Aboriginal Dance Festival, a Daintree Parks Ranger tells us there have been 3- Daintree road fatalities in the last 2-months.

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Sunday drive to Turkey Creek

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Sunday drive to Turkey Creek

No, the above picture is not our truck. But there has been lots of rain, the remnants of Cyclone Debbie rending this Queensland track full of waterlogged potholes and a labyrinth of deep muddy ruts. And there's a flying army of biting midges whenever we dare get out of the truck.

We've come from Agnes Water on the coast, turning off to travel the 'scenic route' - only 20km as the crow flies - the track a winding dashed line on our iPad Hema maps... and it is shown on our truck GPS, so we've decided it really does exist and gone with it. It was odd though, for such a short distance, that the GPS added hours onto our anticipated trip time when we changed from its preferred route to our more 'scenic' pick.

We've been bumping along for hours now, dodging tree branches, ruts and flooded potholes as best we can. Amongst the paperbark swamp there's also the occasional creek crossing to deal with, and a local dry detour if we get lucky. For much of the time though, it's best that one of us walks on ahead to test the lay of the land, the depth of water or mud, and give directions... we like to nurse our precious truck as best we can.

There are hazards walking though, the aforementioned midges, my sandaled right foot sinks in a hole of stinking grey mud that sticks like glue... Sue says giving me the appearance of wearing one grey sock. There are also free-range bovine onlookers for the driver to negotiate from time to time, curious mostly, and tending to wander along the track with an air of nonchalant disdain.

Just here there's another bend on this character-building track we've chosen, when almost to the Turkey Beach turnoff... and the white Landcruiser Workmate ute bogged up to its axles.

Jason and Mack have time off from the mines, with Mack's father running a farm near here. They haven't gotten far though, with Mack seeming a little courageous to city slickers like us. In fact he may have chosen the most challenging route from 3-options right here. Nevertheless, Mack is happy to see us, his diff locks not working his recovery gear limited to a snatch strap, and a hydraulic barrel jack that he has somehow managed to prop under the rear axel but is now jammed stuck. He glances up and down the track.  "There's not much traffic about these parts."

As it happens, we have all the recovery gear, never used till now... and are more than happy to help out, knowing all too well that next time it could be us.

The Landcruiser ute comes out with a roar, a splash and a spray of mud, leaving Mack's hydraulic jack swallowed by the watery abyss, like some murky, muddy time capsule planted for another thrillseeking 4WD enthusiast to rediscover years from now.

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