<<  Darwin, 28-Jul-2013  >>

From Cairns to Darwin

2 850km across desert: 1 250km with Garuda and 1 600km hitch-hiking after Garuda decided to give it up. Croc, dinos, Aborigines, dead car, Aussie Outback show and amazing people along the way

From Cairns to Darwin: 2 850km.
What a ride! WHAT A RIDE!

The plan was simple: Start from Cairns on Sunday morning, make it to Tennant Creek, where roads to Darwin and Alice Springs fork by Wednesday, drop-off Helen there and continue to Darwin and be there until Friday 26.7.2013.
Nice plan, but the Universe didn’t quite like it.

After the last day on the East Coast, nice sunny and warm Saturday (and I swear this was the first really warm and sunny day during all the time I have spent in Australia, as “winter” was always ahead of we) we started from Cairns and headed back to Townsville from where the road to Darwin begins and cuts through the Outback. Although Townsville is not so far away from Cairns, “only” 350 km, 4 hours driving time, we decided to stay there for the night, because Helen wanted to meet her Aussie friend Adrian, whom she had met while working in Western Australia some 2 years ago and who happened to be in Townsville for that evening. He works for a construction company and so he was about to sleep in a caravan on that company’s industrial property, bit out of town. As me and Helen sleep mostly in the car ever since we’ve been travelling together, to cut the accommodation cost (all together in Australia I spent actually very few nights in hostels) we decided to join him. When we arrived there, to that mix of truck stop and industrial warehouse, we decided to go to sleep on banks of nearby river, as Adrian mentioned that he lately found some cool spot for picnicking and camping. Adrian rode his off road motorbike there, which actually broke down on the way so he had to push it half of the way there. We found the spot, cooked some simple dinner, prepared the car for sleeping and as we were just downing some beers and wine, suddenly we (ehm, Helen, I was just drinking…) noticed that the level of the river was rising. It was a tidal river and what first seemed as a small puddle next to our car was suddenly turning into deepening and widening stretch of water between the sandbank where we were eating and drinking and our car, and it was about to cut us off from our car. So we decided to quickly pack and move the car somewhere else, when Helen suddenly came and said we need to rush because there is also a crocodile around. Before, when I had told her that I wasn’t so sure about sleeping there, because it looked like a perfect spot for crocs, she just said that I worried too much,as usually, but this time, my worried mind was just right! On our way back from the river we got bit lost in the sand trails around us (thanks Adrian for finding and “rescuing” us) and when we finally got out of there, we had to tow Adrian and his bike by rope. All of that after drinking alcohol, but luckily we were in complete middle of nowhere and we had to drive only about 3kms, so managed to do it without any accident or police intervention.
It's not cool Sunday unless you're running away from a rising river, a crocodile and pullinga guy on a broken motorbike after drinking alcohol! :-)

Next day, early morning we finally headed inland. And drove and drove for hours. The highway was bit more frequented than I expected, it was by no means “lost highway” and every 30-60 minutes we passed through some tiny settlement, but there was very little to see along the way. Not even the desert, just dried grassland and bush. Nothing. Except road kills. If you are into road kill tourism, I highly recommend the road between Townsville and Hughenden. There was a road kill every 300 meters (this is not exaggeration!), I must have seen at least 2 000 dead kangaroos, and I mean really 2 000. The most disgusting drive ever. But the ravens and eagles seemed to be pretty happy about it :-)
Oh, and apart from the road kills there were dozens of those famous Australian “road trains”, the cause of all those road kills. Trucks with 3-4 trailers that don’t stop or slow down for anything and anyone, because it takes them few kilometers to safely stop (at least I heard so, I didn’t bother to check it or try it). It’s always a bit if adventure to overtake those 50m long monsters.

We stopped for a short break in Richmond, where there’s a dinosaur museum. This whole area is one of the best dino fossils places on the planet and they had a lot of bones and fossils aging 100 000 000 years back. They also had decent Crocosaurus skeleton on display – Crocosaurus being the largest marine dino/reptile predator that has ever lived. But he highlight was one completely and perfectly preserved skeleton of Ichtosaurus, or something like that, and wow, that piece of old junk blew my mind. It was just awesome how well it was preserved. I wish I was on display like this 100 000 00 years I die :-)

It’s basically impossible to drive during nights in the Outback, because as soon as the sun goes down, kangaroos start to hop all around the place, and god knows they aren’t smart creatures, so they LOVE to jump on the road and commit suicides by jumping right under your car when you pass them. They are really serious about this suicidal business and the damage they do to cars is massive, so no one drives during nights, except for the road trains, who massacre the kangaroos by hundreds. For the night we made it to Cloncurry a tiny hole in middle of nowhere, but surprisingly, this tiny hole is the place where mighty Qantas was established. As we were passing a bridge out of town, looking for a rest area to sleep at, we noticed a kind of tent/shack down under the bridge, obviously some people on a long-term “camping” there and we decided to check it out. There was Aboriginal flag hanging there, so we knew that it would be the locals.
We came there to “Tent Embassy” and found 3 Aboriginals, who were basically homeless, because they were kicked out from their houses, so they stayed there in kind of tent-shack, but had there all the facilities – running water, kitchen and even Toi Toi toilet. All of them were drunk and obvious alcoholics, but they were very nice and kind hearted people, so we had a very good evening there, and I had at least some, first contact with the Aborigines. We sat there around a camp fire and listened their stories and it was good evening. As usually, it was Helen who spotted the place and decided we should go there (she was the boss of this drive) :-) and I told her, that thanks to her I always end up in some interesting place. Meeting Filo, the walker around the world, picnicking next to the croc and now spending the night at Tent Embassy, I owe all this stories to her.

Next day, we made it to Mt. Isa, one of most important mining towns in Australia, and arrival to Mt. Isa looked EXACTLY like arrival to Ziar Nad Hronom (only Czechs and Slovaks know..). Very bizarre place! GIGANTIC mine which managed to give birth to a town of more than 20 000 people (for comparison, most of other settlements in this area have population between 10 and 500 people).
Fascinating place and it was also the place where finally the surrounding landscape started to look interesting, with low red hills/cliffs rising from the desert. After maybe 1 hour we left Mt. Isa and headed towards Queensland – Northern Territory border.

We stopped in Camooweal, the last settlement in Queensland for some petrol, and after I filled the tank, everything has suddenly changed. Helen coming back from the office of the petrol station noticed that we had some kind of leakage. I moved the car, checked the liquid and it was oil. And suddenly I knew why the thermometer was showing suspiciously high temperature during last 100km, although not overheating. We opened the hood and there was oil all around the place. As I know absolutely nothing about cars, Helen suggested that she would ask a guy (Jamie) on other side of the parking lot who seemed to have broken down car himself and seemed to know something about cars to come and help us out. He came over, looked at it and said: “If there is oil here” and pointed to an air filter “prepare your tent”. He took down a lid from the filter and… the filter was drowning in oil. “I’m sorry guys. I’m very sorry. This is very bad. Veeeryy bad” he said and we knew we were fucked.
Camooweal is a village of 300 people. There is local mechanic, but as it turned out, he was out of town for the rest of the week, because he was on a funeral. Not his funeral, somebody else’s funeral, I mean. Damn it, and now WHAT?
My visa was going to expire in few days, on Sunday I had flight from Australia which I had to catch, and here we were, stuck in fucking Camooweal, 1 600km from Darwin, 200km from Mt. Isa, the only real town in radius of 1 000km. And the car isn’t mine of course, it’s Nik’s car and I couldn’t just leave it there. Jamie’s wife Georgie, woman in the know, also took a look at the car, and later I asked one guy who stopped on the petrol station to fill upl and who turned out to be a mechanic for his advice and they all said the same: it’s going to cost thousands of dollars to get this fixed. While Jamie and Georgie were sure that the engine would completely die within 50kms, the mechanic (Josh) reckoned that we could make it back to Mt. Isa (200km) if we drove slowly and kept on refilling the oil, but as he said, after arriving there, it would still cost us fortune to get it fixed. Nik wanted to tell the car for around 1 000 AUD, so investing 3-4 thousand of dollars into the car was an obvious non-sense. We decided to sleep on it and decide what to do in the morning.
While it was a major fuck-up, in a way we were pretty lucky! Everybody told me that after Camooweal, which is just few kms from Northern Territory border there is NOTHING for hundreds of kilometers. Between Camooweal and Townsville there were at least occasional settlements, but everybody told us that from here it’s pure emptiness (and later we would find ourselves that it was truth). If Helen didn’t notice the leakage, the car would most probably break down within next 100km and we would be stuck in the middle of the desert, with no access to anything, water, food, phone signal. We had emergency supplies of water and food, and there were few cars passing by, but getting stuck out there would be definitely complete fuck-up. The traffic after Mt. Isa dropped significantly, so there really only few cars travelling here, and no one would be willing to stop, because as the Aborigines from Tent Embassy warned us, Northern Territory is infamous for fake car accidents which are traps. They told us not to stop for anybody, even if they seem injured, because usually it’s a trap – you pull over, and suddenly they take all that you have, your car and leave you in the middle of desert. Jamie and Georgie were Christians and they saw God’s mercy in the fact that we (I mean Helen) noticed the leakage here in Camooweal. And so we prayed and thanked Jesus Christ for his guardianship over us. As atheist as I am, if I could worship Shiva in India, I saw no reason why not to thank Jesus here, especially if these wonderful people helping us out wanted to make a prayer.

OK, now I will enter a territory of deep speculation, but it’s not complete bullshit actually. Let’s play around with the statistics for a while. What all the people who took a look at the car told me, there was nothing to really prevent this kind of damage. If would happen sooner or later on this drive. It was not result of any sudden damage, or mistreatment of the car, the engine was simply about to die, and it would happen anyway. So let’s assume that the probability of this event to happen between Camooweal and Darwin was around 95%. I would have never looked under the car myself, I never even thought about that (my stupidity, now I know…) so the chance of ME noticing the problem before the engine would explode is 0%, in other words, 100% chance of not preventing it, if I traveled alone. So it’s 100% x 95% and we still have 95% chance of me breaking down somewhere in the desert. Now, I have no clue what are the chances of me dying if the engine would break down, because of complete loss of oil, but I would guess that it could be around 25%. Having engine break down while traveling 120km/h can produce some serious mess I guess. And even if I survived that, I would still be stuck in the desert without any help and phone signal. So considering all of this, Helen maybe saved my life. We will never know, but the chances that she saved my life are there. And now comes the main speculation, let’s get fatalist :-) Why and how did I meet Helen? I met her in Noosa when I returned there after I lost my camera. If I hadn’t lost the camera, I would have never met Helen. So what’s the speculative outcome? My ”tragic” loss of camera MAYBE saved my life! Even without drifting to religious speculation, simply based on statistics this is true. Because when I checked other backpackers wanting to travel from Cairns to Darwin, I actually didn’t find anyone else than Helen, so if not for her I would probably travel alone, and even with her, if the breakdown would have happened after Tennant Creek where I was about to drop her off I would be alone and… possibly dead.
So did the Universe make me lose my camera and saved my life by that?
As they say, God works in mysterious ways!

Lucklily in Camooweal there was phone signal, although I had to buy SIM card and credit of different telecom operator, as mine didn’t have coverage. Thanks to this I managed to consult the situation with Nik and next morning I decided to leave the car there, and continue to Darwin, as my visa would expire. When the mechanic returns I will call him, ask him to take a proper look at the carand let me know if it is fixable for reasonable amount of money. If yes, I would somehow pick the car later, when I’m back in Australia in 6 weeks, if not, the car would be his, for spare parts.
Just when we woke up a campervan with a young Australian couple (Jake and Loz) stopped by and asked if everything was alright, and upon hearing our tragic story :-) they offered to give us a ride. Helen to Tennant Creek and me to Katherine, not so far away from Darwin (“only” 320km). These 2 amazing people waited for us, I did last 100m drive with Garuda and parked the car at the mechanic’s neighbors’ place, gave away all the camping equipment as obviously I couldn’t take a mattress, a table and camping chairs with me, we left dead corpse of Garuda behind, said good bye to Jamie and Georgie and jumped aboard “Dream Catcher” campervan.

Jake and Loz from Melbourne, who are traveling around Australia have an old campervan so it cruises at max 90km/h but the ride with them was just awesome. They are such a lovely people! They were just 22 and 21 years old, so kind of “kids” compared to me :-), but they have been together since they were 14 (!) and all I can say, that these “kids” are far ahead of me when it comes to having things sorted out inside your head. It was almost incredible how mature and aware of their path Jake and Loz were, especially compared to me and other traveling lost souls in their 30’s.
By the evening we made it to Tennant Creek and slept on a nearby rest area. It was here, around Tennant Creek that the landscape finally began to look fascinating. The extra boring dead grasslands and sparse bush gave their way to beautiful red desert from everyone’s dreams about Australia.
By the way I forgot to mention this, but after entering Northern Territory, few kms after Camooweal, I was really shocked how the landscape immediately changed to aboslute emptiness, just as everybody told us. Suddenly the road between Camooweal and Townsville looked exciting. For the next 500km from Camooweal we just passed 2 gas stations and that was it. Even the road kills all disappeared, because the country was complete wasteland, not giving any chance for life(and death on the road). Flat horizon everywhere around, and NOTHING. Straight road, without any curve for tens of kilometers. Only now I could fully appreciate my luck that Helen spotted the leakage in Camooweal and prevented us from getting stuck HERE.

So there in Tennant Creek the soil turned red, desert mountains started to rise, and when I woke up, before the sunrise and watched the sun spraying its first rays over the desert, it touched my heart. And suddenly I knew that I will have to return here to finish my Australian journey. The original plan was, that after I leave Australia on Sunday, I would return here in 6 weeks (after leaving Australia I can enter it again, I just can’t stay here longer than 3 months in row) and drive Garuda from Darwin to Alice Springs, Uluru, Adelaide and back to Sydney. Well, that’s not going to happen, but I will have to find some way how to make it to Uluru. These red badlands really touched me deep inside, I gotta come back. And by the way, once again I had to use gloves, thermals and winter cap when sleeping, it was 1’C in the night on the desert!

In Tennant Creek I said good bye to Helen. We traveled more than 2 500km together, for almost 2 weeks, and what an adventure that was! Thanks Helen for sharing this ride and time with me, thanks for all those cool people that I met thanks to you, although yes, sometimes it was bit too much for a solitaire like me :-) and ultimately, thanks for (maybe) saving my life. Good luck in your travels, and see you in Indonesia! And as you know Helen:
“Don’t worry, ‘bout a thing,
Cause every little thing,
Is gonna be alright!


As we left Helen in Tennant Creek (from where she hitch hiked to Alice Springs) we headed north and the landscape very soon turned back to boring bush again. For the evening we stayed in Daly Waters, because Jake and Loz wanted to see some famous Australian Outback show.
Ha, another great experience!
I couldn’t believe it. I thought that this kind of fun had extinct in 1959. I felt like if I was time teleported to 60 years back: there was an “entertainer” who was basically a pseudo-cowboy, who played country music and was telling jokes in rhymes. In rhymes! And to spice it up a bit, sometimes he would throw in that handful of authentic patriotism. Australia the great! But the best thing was the audience. 100% white, ALL, and I mean ALL (except us) in their 50’s, that working class and middle class representation, all on their genuine Aussie holiday, across the Outback. Yeehaaw! City rednecks :-) All women with the same short hairdo, army of soon-to-be retirees, who were laughing their asses off on the old jokes (some of those jokes I even knew from Slovakia). It was incredible probe into Aussie culture, one of those authentic experiences you rarely see. I was so glad that we stopped there. Not because I would like the show, for me it sucked (although I did like some country songs, that’s for sure) but seeing that glimpse of yesteryears was something truly special. I found the level of patriotism at the end of the show slightly alarming, and even if I don’t think at all that the entertainer was racist, I really wonder if he would have the guts to say the same things in a pub in Tennant Creek, which was unlike this place full of local Aborigines. I wonder if they would clap their hands after this bla bla bla about loyalty to Australian Army and Australian flag.

From Daly Waters we continued towards Darwin and stopped at few places, such as oasis and thermal springs around Mataranka, and arrived to Katherine from where Jake and Loz continued to Kakadu National Park so I disembarked Dream Catcher campervan and started to hitch-hike to Darwin.
Katherine was not the best place for hitch-hiking, because petrol station was right in the middle of the town, which is never good place for hitch-hiking, there were no campervan passing through at all, it was getting kind of late, and the whole town didn’t emanate very safe feeling. Actually it looked like half-Bronx :-)
Just when I was about to lose hope and buy a bus ticket for the evening, a long dreadlocked guy who was getting some petrol asked me if I wanted a ride to Darwin and so I hopped on to Noah’s Arc. His name was really Noah and he was from Nimbin. Absolutely cool guy, who (with waist long dreadlocks) teaches tourism at university in Lismore and here in Northern Territory helps remote Aboriginal communities to set up some tourist infrastructure. It was 3 hours from Katherine do Darwin and all this time he was talking about Aborigines and their history and about Australia and it was super interesting. He himself was born in Australia to American parents, and was 1/4 Cherokee and lived on a community farm in Nimbin (the marihuana town, if you remember). Among other things he told me that Aborigines are the oldest direct descendants of the first wave of modern people to leave Africa, that their rock art is the oldest art in the world, by far older than the oldest cave paintings in Europe, and that the Aboriginal traditions are so strong, that they still keep in their oral tradition and stories record of events thousands year ago and animals which had been extinct for 20 000 years.

When Noah dropped me off in Darwin I thought that the adventurous journey from Cairns was over, but it was not, as soon I found that all hostels in the town were completely sold out and so it seemed that I would have to sleep in streets. As I was walking around with my backpack, frontpack and cooler box in my hand some random guys from Iran offered me a ride. With them I checked few more hostels, all booked out, and so I was getting prepared for a night in a park and called one CouchSurfer who was supposed to take care of my car and some extra bags while I would be in Indonesia, with intention to drop their my bags and sleep in some park (because she had told me before that she would not be able to host me for those days) and when I called she offered me to stay there (actually the CouchSurfer was not at home for couple of days, so it was her family that offered me the place) and those nice Iranian guys took me 15km from Darwin to suburbs and after 1600km of car hopping I finally arrived and went to sleep. Amen.
If there is one thing that this shit with broken car taught me, it’s how amazing people are over here, and how essential it is to love thy neighbor and help each other.

Dear Poseidon,
In your wrath you took my camera,
you took my wallet and documents,
then you took "my" car
and you even booked out all the hostels in Darwin,
just to prevent me from arriving here,
but let me tell you, oh mighty Poseidon,
nothing, NOTHING can stop Odysseus! I shall not give up easily!

After all the obstacles and trials, here I am in Ithaca, ehm, Darwin.

PS: Big thanks to all the Phoenicians who took me on their ships: Jake and Loz (1100km), Noah (320km), Ehsan & Abshin (15km) and to Amanda & Mara for providing me a bed to sleep.

Next day I went to town to send Nik his car plates and being it my last in Australia I went to a restaurant for the first time, had me a rump steak, last beer, quickly checked miniature downtown of Darwin, relaxed tropical town, went back to the CS place and spend the evening and next day preparing for departure, backing up my data (I’m now paranoid that also my computer will be lost/stolen/broken and I will lose all my pictures), played few games of American Joker with the family, one game of tennis with other CS guests, packed my bag, got a ride to the airport from Mara (mother of the CS host) and GONE, BABY GONE I’m out of here!!!

Going to Indonesia for 6 weeks, with plan to do some island hoping around Nusa Tengara (islands east from Bali), but based on my latest experiences I do not have too much trust in my plans anyway, so let’s see what happens. After 6 weeks I should be back. Originally I planned to drive through Uluru and Alice Springs back to Sydney, return the car to Nik and decide what to do next, if stay in Australia (but that time Irene should be back) or move to another part of this planet, but well, now that I’m carless, who knows what will happen. I certainly don’t. Let’s save tomorrow for tomorrow and think about today instead.

So Australia, this is it, for now.
It was strange over here. I surely saw lots of amazing and iconic places and good fun, but it was not pure love story. Compared to my time in India and Nepal, the value-for-money and value-for-time was far beyond my Asian adventures, but at least 2 very important things happened, and who knows, maybe they will turn out to be the most important things in my life:
1. I met Irene :-)
2. I was finally cured from my childhood dream and childish obsession of moving to Australia, which I had always imagined as the promised land. Promised land it is not. At least for me. Actually, thanks to Australia I for the first time very strongly realized by European identity and that I really like it there.
So Australia, thank you, good trip, that’s for sure, with some extra spice at the end after Garuda died in the desert, good adventures, some seriously lovely people (actually the totally amazing people I’ve met here are going to be the highlight of this trip), all good, but you will not be “love of my life”. Baby, good bye for now, see you in six weeks again, and we will see how we will match then.

Asia my love, 
Please forgive me that I had left you and have been deceitful for 3 months here in Australia, but it's all over now, I'm coming back to you baby!
I want it all again:
Crazy tuk-tuk drivers and annoying touts,
Unbearable noise, mess all around and plastic bag apocalypse,
"Bob Marley Bar"s on every corner and ridiculous Bintang tops,
Bargaining for each piece of crap and even those gangster monkeys!
Bring it on baby, I'm ready and willing again!
Tomorrow evening I should be in Indonesia, but I intentionally use word "should", because based on my latest "luck" I assume that on my way to airport I will break my leg, someone will steal my passport and finally the airplane will crash :-)

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     MARCEL STRBAK | www.strbak.com | www.facebook.com/marcel.strbak