July 2—The Gulflander to Normanton
One of Australia's special railway experiences is to take the small 'rattler' known as The Gulflander & we & Denise & Mark, piled our bikes on the train heading 150 klms west to the historic port of Normanton. Liz also joined us too, while Allan drove their car to meet the train at Normanton. It was a rockin’, rollin’, ridin’ ride as we chugged thru dry & sparse country, slowing down to see large, black pigs & piglets race across the line as well as cattle mustering on the line too, we also saw lots of birds—bustards, brolgas, sarus cranes & sea eagles.
The rail is a masterpiece of adaptive design. George Philips, the supervising engineer, designed special steel sleepers which proved so successful that they are still in use today. Unfortunately, the railway line was only a brief success, when it opened in 1907 it was planned that it would become a major line and that Normanton would grow to become a major port. In its first year of operation there were 55 railway employees and the train was carrying 10 000 passengers each year. By 1891 the population had reached 1,251. However the Croydon gold diggings were short-lived and the whole area was on the decline. Even the cattle which had been the town's mainstay started heading south as the railway line was extended out towards Mount Isa. By 1947 the population had dropped to 234.
Normanton’s population today is 1,100, 60 per cent of whom are Indigenous Australians. It has since picked up with the development of prawn fishing at Karumba and the increasing interest in tourism. Beside The Gulflander, another of Normanton’s features is a statue of an 8.64 m long salt water crocodile, the largest ever shot. Earlier this year, Normanton & Karumba were effectively cut off from the rest of civilisation for several months when floods caused havoc across the state’s northern half. It’s hard to image in the dry & dusty town it is today. We’re staying here for 3 days to catch up on admin stuff & to plan & stock up for our trip further west.
July 5 – Normanton to Bush Camp, 88.85 klms, Avg speed 14.5 kph, Cycling time 6.08 hrs; Total kms 10,894.24
On the Savannah Way, we encountered lots of corrugations & loose gravel, a cyclists nightmare, well mine anyway. On the plus side, it’s flat out here, we had a tail wind in the morning, not a cloud in the sky, temp in high 20s & because of the road conditions there is little traffic which also means less road kill too. We saw brolgas, eagles, whistling kites & 4 small, black feral pigs as we set up bush camp by a dry creek. Whilst heating the spag bol I’d made the night before we saw one of the most amazing sunsets which seemed to stretch 180 degrees across the open planes, I can see now why Greg loves this “big sky” country.
July 6 – Bush Camp to Bush Camp-Leichhardt Falls, 65.72 klms, Avg speed 11.9 kph, Cycling time 5.31 hrs; Total kms 10,959.96
A chilly morning greeted us & we stayed in bed waiting for the warmth of the sun, rising late at the moment around 6.45am. More corrugations & loamy gravel so a slow cycling day however hardly any vehicles on the road so really quiet.
A tree full of white Cockatoos put on a fantastic display of synchronised flying just before sunset and just for us. We dined on Curried Corn Beef, Deb & Peas followed by Fruit Cake. With a full moon, the sky twinkling with stars & the sight & sound of the Falls before us it was a memorable night.
July 7– Leichhardt Falls to Burketown, 73.83 klms, Avg speed 20.6 kph, Cycling time 3.35 hrs; Total kms 11,043.79
With a bitumen road & tail wind we literally sailed into the Burketown Caravan Park. Burketown is an outback town located 418 km north of Mount Isa and 15 metres above sea-level & it proudly announces it is 'The Barramundi Capital of Australia'. It’s also famous for Morning Glory, a unique cloud formation that rolls across the sky in a distinctive tube shape, I doubt we’ll see it as it occurs in spring. This small town on the flat plains of the Gulf of Carpentaria is really nothing more than a school, a pub, a couple of service stations, a council office, and two general stores. The first Europeans into the area were Burke, who is the source of the town's name, and Wills. They reached the coast near Normanton in 1861. Burketown currently has a population of 235 which is about as high as it has ever been. We enjoyed somebody else’s cooking at the pub for dinner and some cold beer to quench the thirst. Tomorrow has been declared a rest day so we can have a sleep in. We’ll stock up on supplies before heading south, we’re staying at Adels Grove, near Lawn Hill National Park, this Sat for 3 days, then will head north again to Doomadgee & continue on The Savannah Way to Borroloola, Mobile/internet access will again be limited over the next few weeks so if we’ve won the lottery we won’t know for a while.
July 9 – Burketown to Bush Camp, 70.73 klms, Avg speed 12.6 kph, Cycling time 5.36 hrs; Total kms 11,114.52
Tough road conditions, persistent head wind which had one advantage, it kept you cool on a sunny day, at least there’s little humidity at the moment, thank goodness, although the temperature is in the high 20’s to low 30’s. We had morning tea (Beames Brook), lunch & dinner by the water, very pleasant considering many rivers are dry at the moment.
July 10 – Bush Camp to Gregory Downs, 48.10 klms, Avg speed 11.2 kph, Cycling time 4.17 hrs; Total kms 11,162.62
Grrrr...another headwind, gustier than yesterday. The last 10 klms into Gregory Downs we hit mining road trains & terrible, soft & very fine bulldust which is hard to ride on, we think this is when Greg lost his cycle computer, luckily I also have one so can still record our riding stats. I offered to ride back to search for it but Greg said it would probably have been run over by the mighty road trains. We camped behind the Gregory Downs Hotel & devoured hamburgers for lunch & shock horror something different on a Hotel menu for dinner—Cottage Pie which was yummy. Greg had his usual.
July 11 – Gregory Downs to Adels Grove, 87.86 klms, Avg speed 12.3 kph, Cycling time 7.07 hrs; Total kms 11,250.48
Good news, the 4 Century Mine road trains weren’t working today, a godsend since they throw up a huge amount of dust. The road conditions for the first 40 klms, to the Mine turn off, were OK however the next 48 klms were atrocious, very rocky with large stones so it was a slow, long, bumpy ride for me, one pleasant sight was seeing lots of budgies, one unpleasant sight was a dead cow, bloating up in the sun, yuck! By the time we arrived at Adels Grove, I was very hot, tired & crabby, I’m amazed how fast Greg can ride on such terrible road conditions. He said even though he’d worn his sports bra one of his boobs kept popping out with all the bumps. After a refreshing shower all was forgotten, we headed to the bar & listened to the entertainment, we seemed to be the youngest there & Greg remarked the entertainers looked as though they’d escaped from the retirement village. George and Mildred, as Greg named them, belted out classic hits from the 20’s and 30’s. Most of the audience knew the words so we felt like mere kids compared to this lot.
July 12-13—Adels Grove/Lawn Hill National Park
The side trip to Adels Grove/Lawn Hill National Park added an extra 240 klms to our journey, but it was worth it. The National Park is one of Queensland’s most scenic in the remote NW highlands featuring spectacular gorge country, sandstone ranges & World Heritage fossils. The Lawn Hill gorge is formed by Lawn Hill Creek which is fed by numerous fresh water springs from the limestone plateau to the west. We spent 2 hours canoeing through the beautiful gorge then walked up Island Stack for more amazing views. Back at Adels Grove we relaxed on the large deck & read our books & had dinner for the last 2 nights at the restaurant. How lucky we were to sit with 4 entertaining dinner guests on both nights, Andrew, Peter, Charles & Tiffany, all involved in the fight against Rubbervine, a problem weed in the Gulf Savannah.
July 14 – Adels Grove to Bush Camp, Elizabeth Creek 67.68 klms, Avg speed 11.9 kph, Cycling time 5.41 hrs; Total kms 11,318.06
The road wasn't too bad today, it was still bumpy but not so many corrugations. After crossing the still fast flowing Lawn Hill Creek and going through about 20 gates we made our way north and back onto the Savannah Way. The country was stunning, we expected to see John Wayne appear over the horizon with guns blazing & there were few cars too. With blue skies & a tailwind it was perfect riding. We found a nice bush camp across from Elizabeth Creek with great birdlife & the reddest of sunsets too. A cow in the distance didn’t seem too happy until a large bull & black horse crossed the river to join her. They were startled to see us, the bull scruffing up dust with his hoof, luckily the cow was more important & thankfully they all disappeared out of sight. We got water from the creek to filter for drinking, showering and washing before cooking dinner. I hung our washing out in the nearest tree and we were in bed before 7.00pm.
July 15 – Bush Camp, Elizabeth Creek to Bush Camp, 10 klms east of Doomadgee 50.11 klms, Avg speed 12.4 kph, Cycling time 4.00 hrs; Total kms 11,368.17
We’re riding through flat, classic Savannah country, again pretty good road conditions, headwind early on with a tail wind later. Only 3 cars passed us today, the only other amusement was trying to guess the animal tracks in the sand. We’re heading to an aboriginal town called Doomadgee to pick up supplies, we had been warned not to camp there so we camped 12 klms east of the town. We found a great camp spot at a dead end down a dirt track, it had great views, a supply of chopped firewood & little rubbish indicating the locals don’t stay here, the only downside were the flies so out came our fly nets. Greg said he had a surprise for me, he’d located 4 lemonade & vodka cruises in the bush, they looked as though they’d been there a while so we thought we may as well drink them with our dinner, they were warm but at least a change from tea.
July 16 – Bush Camp to Bush Camp , 55.45 klms, Avg speed 12.8 kph, Cycling time 4.19 hrs; Total kms 11,423.62
Greg found more booze this morning hidden in a large tin can covered by stones, there were 8 cans of rum and coke. Neither of us drink rum so he left them there. We think this booze is left by the Aboriginal people of Doomadgee because they can’t take it back home in town.
How lucky we were to find that camp spot last night as 2 klms further down the road the rubbish started & continued into the town of Doomadgee. Doomadgee is a “designated dry area” meaning the locals can’t buy/drink/transport alcohol in this designated area. This doesn’t stop them drinking outside the area confirmed by the empty beer cans & carton boxes strewn all along the roadside. The town itself was covered in rubbish, along the streets & in backyards & as we rode into town there seemed to be a large number of people outside The Courthouse/Police Station. The supermarket was surprisingly well stocked for a small country town with people queuing at the checkout however when I went to pay everybody had disappeared. The manager was waiting to close the shop, there was a funeral taking place & most locals were attending which meant the shop would be closed for 3 hours. Thank goodness we got there before it closed otherwise we would have had to wait in the town until 1pm. With panniers bulging with 7 day’s worth of goodies we rode out of town with a tailwind, another brilliant blue sky, 30C temp bumping our way over corrugations & lots of sand. We camped next to a dam & devoured tinned braised steak & onions for dinner, smelt more of dog food than cat food. During the night we heard wild horses outside, sniffing outside our tent.
July 17– Bush Camp to Hells Gate Roadhouse, 42.67 klms, Avg speed 14.2 kph, Cycling time 2.59 hrs; Total kms 11,466.29
Better road conditions today camping at Hells Gate Roadhouse (pop 2). I was looking forward to a hot shower & throwing our dirty clothes in the washing machine, however, the owner had turned the generator off for a few hours (it’s expensive to run) so a cold shower & hand washing it was. The place was a dust bowl with little grass but it had a nice feel to it with great birdlife & lots of wallabies entering the owner’s garden at dusk to eat their grass. We lit a fire & had meat pies, deb mashed potato & peas for dinner, now I’m even getting sick of the latter, unfortunately there’s not a huge choice at country supermarkets. The road house used to sell beer but because of problems with the people coming from Doomadgee they stopped their beer sales. So the only cold drink was Coke.
July 18 – Hells Gate Roadhouse to Bush Camp, 65.09 klms, Avg speed 9.40 kph, Cycling time 6.53 hrs; Total kms 11,531.38
Terrible riding conditions & a very slow day, as well as the usual corrugations we spent a lot of time pushing our bikes through deep sand. If I see Greg pushing his bike I know the conditions are bad. There was a big highlight to the day though, we finally left the state of Queensland after riding 10,650 klms in that state alone over the past 14 mths, & rode into the Northern Territory (NT). We had hoped to reach the border by lunchtime but it was now 4pm so after our celebration we hopped back on the bikes & pushed on finally disappearing into the bush to camp at 5.00pm which is late for us. With about an hour’s light left we set up the tent, showered & ate dinner of Spaghetti & Pesto in record time. Early to bed tired after our riding today.
July 19 – Bush Camp to Bush Camp, Calvert River, 75.30 klms, Avg speed 12.5 kph, Cycling time 6.00 hrs; Total kms 11,606.68
Much better road today with little pushing through sand. We passed some fantastic scenery at Volcano Mountain before hitting a steep 1 klm climb onto the plateau with a slow drift down the other side. We again found a great bush camp near the flowing Calvert River which meant we didn’t have to carry additional water during the day. We’re using a great cycling guide called “Cycling Outback Australia” covering Cairns-Darwin-Perth giving valuable info on Bush camps, water availability, supermarkets etc. Our many thanks to Craig Bagnall & Nikki Brown for putting such a detailed reference guide together.
July 20 – Bush Camp to Bush Camp, Robinson River, 71.23 klms, Avg speed 10.3 kph, Cycling time 6.53 hrs; Total kms 11,677.91
Oh no, yet another slow day, very rocky, lots of corrugations & with a headwind in the afternoon too. Greg has developed a rating system for the road we ride and he explained it to me like this. Large volumes of water are sometimes measured as Sydharbs, that is, how many Sydney Harbours will fit into so and so. Therefore, and remember this comes from a bloke who thinks the wind is generated by trees waving their branches, roads shall henceforth be measured using the Chris’n’Jule scale. This refers not to our very close friends Chris and Julia, but to their driveway. It’s not that their driveway is particularly bad, and we’ve ridden on it, it’s just that many of our friends and family have been fortunate enough to have been to Chris and Julia’s home Ridgeview in the upper Hunter Valley in New South Wales and so would be familiar with their driveway. The more Chris’n’Jules the road scores on scale of 10 the worse the conditions. Greg reckons the current road we’re on rates about a 9 or 10. I think he’s been in the sun too long... We had to reach the Robinson River today for our water supply so it was a long day in the saddle, as soon as we crossed into the NT it seems to be getting hotter too, it reached 40C this afternoon. We crossed the river & rode up the hill to another great camping spot, dumped our stuff & armed with 4 waterbags & a shower bag walked down to the river to fill them up, keeping a watchful eye out for crocs, none seen so far thank goodness. Back at camp there’s no rest while we put up the tent, put the billy on, filter water, have a shower, get dinner ready, do some washing, fight off the flies & then the mozzies, wash up & fall into bed to pack up & do it all over again. For some strange reason we never tire of packing & unpacking our panniers.
July 21 – Bush Camp to Bush Camp, Wearyn River, 51.08 klms, Avg speed 12.8 kph, Cycling time 3.58 hrs; Total kms 11,728.99
We woke to a misty morning which meant Greg had to pack a wet tent adding extra weight to his load. We had a lazy morning & didn’t leave until 9.30am as we had a relatively short ride. We encountered better road conditions with the surface having been recently graded. I prepared lunch at the Foelsche River (tinned leg ham, mustard, toms & onions on Sao biscuits, followed by mandarins) while Greg filled up 3 x 10 litre water bags & filtered 20 litres whilst there. Loaded up we cycled on to our camp at the Wearyan River which we believed would be flowing but turbid. It was in fact clear so in hindsight we could have collected our water from here. We’ve camped in some great spots & this one didn’t disappoint either, we did some washing, had a shower, lit a fire & Greg cooked some of his delicious salmon patties. It was getting quite late when more travellers arrived, they said we were famous as the people in Burketown had told them 2 (crazy?) cyclists were riding along The Savannah Way & they seem pleased that they had met us. As with The Cape, there must be free beer in Darwin as the 4WDs & camper trailers fly by showering us with stones & dust & totally ignoring 2 boof heads on bikes on the road, our camping mates promised to slow down when they passed us tomorrow.
July 22 – Bush Camp to Borroloola, 60.38 klms, Avg speed 14.8 kph, Cycling time 4.05 hrs; Total kms 11,789.37
We made it! 15 cycling days & 984 klms later, riding over one very dusty, corrugated, sandy gravel road from Normanton we finally arrived at Borroloola, both agreeing this ride was much tougher mentally than the ride up to The Cape. Why had we chosen this route rather than the bitumen road via the Barkly Highway via Mount Isa full of cattle trucks, road trains & caravans galore? Need we say more, after experiencing the spectacular scenery, the bush camps, the birdlife & such light traffic, we felt we’d made the right decision.. Our gravel road ride along The Savannah Way now ceases as we head west along The Carpentaria Highway to Daly Waters then north along The Stuart Highway heading for Darwin. To celebrate our achievement we hired a cabin for 2 nights at The McArthur River Caravan Park, total luxury for us with a fridge, tele, lounge & a bed more than a foot off the ground. Very importantly, you can also buy cold beer and we think we deserved a few after what we’ve just been through. It was no rest though, we didn’t stop whilst there washing everything to get rid of the red dust—ourselves, our clothes, our panniers & importantly our bikes. Crazy Ruby & Horsey performed magnificently, after being shaken to death & carrying extra food & water weight the only problem we found was a few loose spokes on Horsey. We even spoiled our trusty steeds buy splashing some oil on some of the moving parts so now they don’t squeak so much!
July 24 – Borroloola to Cape Crawford, 110.86 klms, Avg speed 15.2 kph, Cycling time 7.16 hrs; Total kms 11,900.23
We were on the road at 7.30am as we have a long ride today albeit on bitumen, yippee!! A slight undulating ride unfortunately with strong cross winds most of the day so a long 7 hour day turning the peddles, thank goodness for our iPods, they frequently come out on long, tough rides. There isn’t too much at Cape Crawford, just the caravan park with the Heartbreak Hotel attached. It’s a really nice, green, shady place to be & we enjoyed eating at the Hotel, lamb chops for me & the usual for Greg. Did someone say wine? Yes they even have wine, two varieties, red and white. We like it here so stayed 2 nights.......
July 26 – Cape Crawford to Leila Creek Station, 8.07 klms, Avg speed 11.5 kph, Cycling time 0.42 hrs; Total kms 11,908.30
Whilst having a drink at Cape Crawford we chatted away to Chris & his 2 young daughters, Jessie (4) & Amy (2). Chris & his partner, Christa, lived 8 klms away on Leila Creek Station & Chris invited us to stay. We initially decided not to as being on bikes we were limited as to what we could carry so didn’t want to arrive empty handed. Then we thought what a great opportunity it would be to visit a 100 Sq Klm Station, which is relatively small in comparison to surrounding Stations. Leila Creek is also a Freehold which is unusual in the Northern Territory as most of the cattle stations are Leasehold. So armed with beers & bottles of wine we arrived before lunch & introduced ourselves to Christa. Over the next couple of days (we couldn’t resist staying longer) we had a wonderful time in particular raiding Christa’s fantastic vegetable garden, we were amazed what she had managed to grow in the Hot Tropics over the past 3 years. Armed with our goodies we were in our element cooking a Roasted Tomato Pasta Sauce & Roasted Ratatouille & the following night, when Chris arrived home & a friend from Darwin arrived (Adrian) dishing up Roasted Garlic Bruschetta, Potato Daphanois, more Ratatouillle, Baked Carrots, Steaks & Squash drizzled with lemon & butter. It was so interesting seeing Christa light the “donkey” (wood fired water heater, pretty common in this part of the world) each night to heat the water & how they generate & use their electricity....all things we take for granted back in Sydney. Electricity at Leila Creek is generated by a combination of solar panels and a diesel generator. The generator kicks in when the batteries have run low so during the day only the fridges are on. All other electrical appliances have to wait until the evening when the generator starts. No washing machine, vacuum cleaner, microwave oven or even the blender. Christa bought an incubator to incubate some of the chickens eggs as she thought it would be good for the kids. She can’t use it as it takes too much juice from the batteries. Leila Creek Station can run up to about 2,000 head of cattle and they’re all watered using water from solar powered bore pumps. Apparently there’s no shortage of water around here you’ve just gotta dig for it. Mail arrives once a week and is picked up from the Heartbreak Hotel, and Christa gets her groceries delivered from Woolworths in Katherine 550 kilometres away about every two weeks or so, also picked up from the pub. There is no radio reception and TV comes via the satellite dish as does their internet. Their neighbours on Broadmere Station (665,000 acres) are just 95 kilometres away so you can play your stereo as loud as you like. Jessie has just started school and is taught by Christa and the school of the air. They go to their school house in the back yard and paint, sing and scream and yell at each other for 4 hours a day and then they walk the 5 metres back home again. Tough day! We had a ball at Leila Creek and were really privileged to have been invited into their home. We contributed as much as we could but still felt embarrassed at the generosity of their hospitality. We’re hoping to repay the kindness later in the year when Chris, Christa and the kids go to Darwin and hopefully we’ll be able to catch up.
July 28 – Leila Creek Station to October Creek Rest Area, 104.34 klms, Avg speed 15.3 kph, Cycling time 6.48 hrs; Total kms 12,012.64
We said goodbye to Chris, Christa, Adrian & Jessie (Amy was still in bed) & rode into the blustery winds, the ride was undulating with a steep 1 klm climb over the Favenc Range. Along the way, Alison stopped her car, she’d just called into Leila Creek Station & was heading home to make a batch of my Roasted Tomato Pasta Sauce recipe. She very kindly invited us to stay at the station she managed, Broadmere Station covering 665,000 acres (hard to imagine such an area), we would have loved too & kindly declined saying we had to push on to Daly Waters. We camped that night at the October Creek Rest Area (RA), one of 3 RAs along this stretch of the Carpentaria Hwy where we can replenish our water supply, lucky as there are no rivers to collect water. That night we dined on Spaghetti & Pasta Sauce, thanks to Christa who insisted I take some of my own sauce.
July 29 – October Creek RA to Bush Camp, 120.10 klms, Avg speed 17.8 kph, Cycling time 6.44 hrs; Total kms 12,132.74
Long undulating ride with mostly a SE tailwind. We had lunch at the Amungee Mungee RA & Greg topped up our water bags unfortunately having to fight for the water through a swarm of European Wasps. By 3.30pm we started searching for a bush camp, not too easy to find in these parts as the station owners back burn near the road side limiting our choice. Finally we found a track in the bush & were deciding where to camp when a ute appeared, the driver not appearing too friendly & remarking we were on private property, well these stations are so HUGE, wherever we camp is most likely on private property. Still as no offer to camp was forthcoming we set off again & had to ride another 20 klms to find camp, much better than the last & closer now to our destination tomorrow. Curried ham & corn beef was dished up for dinner, pretty good too.
July 30 – Bush Camp to Hi-Way Inn Roadhouse near Daly Waters, 65.28 klms, Avg speed 18.3 kph, Cycling time 3.33 hrs; Total kms 12,198.02
Finally the road flattened out with a slight downhill to the Stuart Highway & the Hi-Way Inn Roadhouse where we were delighted to finally find some decent (well OK really) coffee. We had the choice of camping here or at the historic Daly Waters pub, 7 klms away. We rode to the pub & quickly left riding away from all the awful touristy stuff, the place didn’t appeal to us at all. Back at the Hi-Way Inn we pitched camp under a lovely grassy, shady spot & set up office on a spare table & chairs, lucky for us as we need to catch up on lots of admin stuff as we’ve been without internet access for most of the past 3 weeks, time to contact friends & family both here & in the UK. Yep, they sell beer and wine and we’ll try them both. Greg is walking around with a silly grin on his face at the prospect of cold beer tonight. Warm showers, grass under the tent, running water, coffee, beer, wine, food and we’re not cycling for the next 48 hours. Gee we could turn into slobs!