Hot Springs and a Pink Panther
Katherine – Larrimah
It’s nearly 700km between Katherine and the next small town, Tennant Creek (population 2,000), with nothing much in between apart from a few roadhouses and a couple of hamlets.
“Many cyclists turn back and take the bus,” said Coco, the hostel owner in Katherine. “This time of year, the headwinds are so strong you might only manage 50km per day.”
We left Katherine at 7am with a week’s supply of food in our panniers. We expected to take 8 days of cycling to get to Tennant Creek, and maybe take a rest day in between if we were feeling too tired. It is very difficult for a cyclist to carry enough food for 9 days (we eat a lot!), so we hoped to resupply at one of the roadhouses along the way.
The bikes were heavier than ever, though Guy’s wasn’t quite as heavy as it should have been: 5km out of town he realised he’d forgotten to fill up his water bottles! An emergency stop at a creek solved that problem temporarily, and we knew there was a rest area with a water tank about 50km further on. The rest areas in the Northern Territory are great as they allow overnight camping for free and usually have toilets and water tanks. Even though it says on the tanks that the water may not be suitable for drinking, it tastes, looks and smells fine, and when in doubt we filter it.
The next settlement is Mataranka (pop 425), 112km from Katherine, and we planned to get there in the evening. The direct headwind was pretty strong but we were fresh after our break in Katherine.
The terrain was undulating and the landscape beautiful. We love the strong colours of the Outback with the classic red iron oxide rich soil offset against the bright blue sky. Metre high sun tanned grasses lap at the gum trees with their twisted branches and jagged termite mounds jut out every so often. Each termite mound is different from the next, some are 1 foot high others towering to over 2 meters.
In the late afternoon, we rolled into Mataranka, quite exhausted but proud that we made it. Mataranka is famous for its natural hot springs, just what we needed after a long day on the bikes, so we headed directly there. We reached the springs by cycling through a swampy area with water bubbling up and steaming on either side of the road. The springs were set in their natural environment with just a walkway and a wooden pontoon for access.
The water wasn’t too hot, just a little warmer than body temperature. We spent a relaxing hour soaking away the tiredness and soothing our aching muscles.
An early night was had at a nearby campsite. We have found the facilities at Australian campsites to be top notch. They often have a camp kitchen so we can leave our stove packed for the night, and sometimes supply a kettle, toaster and even a fridge. The showers are always hot, and there are washing machines and clothes lines. They are a little more expensive than the campsites in Europe though (around $10 per person).
Sometimes it’s difficult to get going early, as Australians just love a chat. Our fellow campers are mostly in their 60s, often on a long-term trip through Australia with their caravans. These “Grey Nomads” love to come up to us and ask all the usual questions – often it’s great as we can learn a thing or two about the road ahead from them, but sometimes we do get a little tired.
Apart from the Grey Nomads there are also a few younger people on the road, mostly on fishing trips. Almost everyone is going north towards Darwin. As we see about 50-100 caravans a day heading north, we are really not sure where they will all stay once they actually get to Darwin. There is not much traffic at all going towards the colder south, which is good for us as we have a more relaxed time on the road with not many cars having to overtake us.
In the morning, we had a few chores to deal with as this was our last chance for phone reception for the next week or so. By the time we got going, it was nearly noon and we still had 80km of cycling to do. Of course we could have free camped in the bush, but we were not ready yet to carry the extra 4-5l of water we would have needed to camp as we were still getting used to the weight of the bikes.
Our bodies felt great though. The hot springs really seemed to have cured our aches and pains, at least temporarily. The downside was that Freddie developed a funny rash on her arms and legs, which might have been caused by the sulphur in the springs.
Since landing in Darwin there is rarely a moment that goes by that you don’t hear at least a few birds around. The Northern Territory is really a birdwatchers paradise, and on a bicycle we have much more opportunity to observe than in a car. Unfortunately we don’t know much about birds and can only identify a few of them. There were egrets enjoying the overflowing billabongs, wedgetail eagles circling above us, screetching cockatoos and white and pink galahs. As we cycled through the bush, a tree trunk suddenly moved and turned out to be a huge vulture which flew off into the forest as we approached, its wings spanning close to 2 metres, and coming to a stop near a dead kangaroo on the road behind us, ready for its feed.
Unfortunately there are many dead kangaroos along the Stuart Highway. Some have just been killed, others are reduced to a little pile of bleached bones, picked clean by the vultures. They frequently hop into the way of passing cars or trucks, especially at night time. This is why most of the cars here have “roo bars” – metals bars that prevent the car from being smashed when it hits a kangaroo. The worst though are the dead cows we see once in a while, having been killed by road trains unable to stop or swerve.
It was our anniversary day as we had set off on our trip exactly one year ago. As we are both partial to a good scone with jam and cream, we had been looking forward to visiting Fran’s Devonshire tea house in Larrimah, our next stop (despite the fact that we had been warned about the overpriced coffee). However, with all our extracurricular activities in the morning we were too late: the tea house was already closed when we arrived. The celebration would have to wait.
Larrimah (pop 20) was an important WW2 base with 6,500 army personnel stationed in the town and a big air base nearby. Nowadays however, there is not much left of the town, apart from Fran’s and the Pink Panther roadhouse and campsite which featured – you guessed it – a statue of a pink panther out the front. The people running the roadhouse were friendly but looked like they had been there for about 120 years. The main attraction in our view was the free zoo behind the roadhouse which featured a lot of native birds as well as a friendly pet wallaby. It also housed three fun loving emus who entertained themselves (and us) for hours by poking their heads into an open motel room window and yanking at the curtain drawcord!
Word spreads pretty quickly down the Track and often people know of us before our paths have crossed. Some of our Grey Nomad friends had been mentioning two cyclists coming the other way. They were from Argentina and cycling on an ultra low budget. They were very care free and adventurous young chaps. They carried a guitar, didgeridoo and drums as they did street performances to fund their travels. One cycled barefoot and had some backpacks hanging off his bike instead of panniers. They had no tent and must have been very uncomfortable in the freezing night time temperatures further south. It was quite inspirational to talk to them and to see how little you need to cycle tour and made us realise how much luxury we have compared to them.
A little later we ran into another cyclist from Taiwan. He was cycling on a folding bicycle with little wheels so could only manage half the speed that we could do and as a result had to take twice as much water. But little by little be he had come all the way up from Melbourne; another inspirational encounter.
The wind started up earlier every day now, we could hear it lashing against the tent in the wee hours. While in the beginning there had never been much wind before 9am, now it already started up around 4am so that we really had no “free” kilometres in the morning any more. We often found ourselves doing as little as 10kmph on a flat road, switching positions every 2kms so one person got a little rest whilst the other pushed directly into the head wind.
We were now only 3 days into the 8 day ride to Tennant Creek and we could already feel the exhaustion setting in, it was going to be a long haul.||