The Warm-Up Ride
Darwin – Katherine
On our return from Kakadu we dashed to the supermarket to stock up on food for the next 4 days of cycling. Katherine, the next town along the Stuart Highway, is only a little over 300km from Darwin, and we knew we would be able to buy more food there. After that, the distances between food supplies would increase dramatically. The ride to Katherine was a good warm-up ride for us to get used to the conditions of cycling the Australian Outback.
We returned our rental car and enjoyed one last evening with Glen and Ruth. Early the next morning we packed up, waved goodbye to our gracious hosts and pedalled our ultra heavy bikes towards the Stuart Highway. In Asia we had got used to much lighter bikes, without camping kit or food as accommodation and restaurants were available regularly. Now we were additionally carrying our heavy food supplies, 4l of water each, camping kit and a more generous supply of spare parts.
The Stuart Highway follows the route of John McDouall Stuart, the first explorer to traverse the continent south to north. He achieved this on his third attempt in 1862, having turned back because of illness and “hostile natives” on his previous attempts. Later, a telegraph line was built along the route, connecting the Australian colony with the London headquarters.
Once we had got the hang of handling the heavy bikes, our progress was good, despite a light headwind. The “highway” turned out to look just like a small country road, set amongst scrubby bush land and tall Eucalypts. Not far out of Darwin’s suburbs we soon found ourselves immersed in nature and were quickly reminded of how beautiful the Australian bush is. Cockatoo’s screeched at us from the tree tops as wedge tail eagles soared above. In the afternoon wallabies and kangaroos hopped through the long savannah growth and lizards darted across the road as we passed.
On our first night we camped at Adelaide River, a lovely green campsite that felt almost like the lawns of Europe. The campsite was part of the road house which amongst other things featured a huge stuffed water buffalo named Charlie who had become famous in the movie Crocodile Dundee.
In WW2, the Darwin area was the largest Allied operational base in the south west Pacific. Darwin suffered numerous air raids by the Japanese in the early 1940s, and 487 servicemen were buried in Adelaide River. The cemetery was beautifully maintained and is the largest Australian war cemetery.
Whilst cycling through the Northern Territory, we would often pass reminders of the war, including campgrounds for the various battalions involved in the fighting, as well as air strips. Now that these areas are covered in bush land once again, it is very difficult to imagine that the Northern Territory was so key to Australia’s defence in WW2.
On Glen’s recommendation, we detoured off the Stuart Highway to take the scenic route between Adelaide River and Hayes Creek. As most cyclists will know, “scenic routes” often involve numerous hills, and so did this one. It was a beautiful ride, quite undulating and with not much around at all except for bush land.
As it was our wedding anniversary, we were quite delighted when we passed a little creek named Anniversary Creek! Of course we could not resist the photo opportunity.
For lunch, we had a lovely picnic in a shady spot by the side of the road, surrounded by gum trees and wild flowers. To celebrate the day we got the stove out to make a cuppa.
Towards the end of the day we were pretty tired, not being used to the hilly terrain with our heavy bikes. Hayes Creek campsite was a lovely place with a beautiful view over a steep ridge. To our surprise, another cyclist rolled into camp shortly after us. Kerry had cycled up from Geelong, near Melbourne, in 30 days with only one rest day. Her goal was to get to Darwin the following day for her graduation. She was very inspirational, a single mum full of boundless energy and the grit she needed to achieve her ambitious goal.
It seemed our ride along the Stuart Highway was not to be the lonely adventure we had foreseen: the next morning, we met a Dutch couple cycling the other way, as well as a chap from Perth on a recumbent bike.
At this time of the year the winds are prevailing south easterlies, so we were a little jealous to hear their stories of huge distances covered in a single bound. We only managed 56km that day. Freddie’s knee was aching, the hills and head winds were taking their toll. We stopped at Pine Creek, a small village with a tiny shop stocking mainly canned, dried and frozen goods.
Pine Creek is a classic Gold Rush town, having enjoyed a 20 year gold rush starting in the 1880s. Even now, there are still some gold mines around. When we stopped for a loo break near the town, we actually spotted a guy with a metal detector walking around in the bush looking for precious metals. A little later, we met a retired couple of sapphire miners from Queensland at a campsite. They explained that you could still just peg a claim, get permission from the government and then mine the area, just like in the good old days!
Smoke and fire on the horizon became a common sight as controlled burning was taking place to clear out the undergrowth in preparation for the bush fire season. The Aboriginals for centuries and even today still use burning off techniques in the early dry season to avoid bush fires later on in the year and promote re-vegetation.
We made good progress in the morning of our last day’s cycling to Katherine and had 50km done by 11:30am, despite the head wind. The afternoon however was a struggle. The heat did not bother us too much as it was quite a dry heat, although it was 36°C, but the wind really picked up in the afternoon. For the first time on our trip we actually found the motivation to get up extra early (5:30am) to beat the afternoon winds.
At first glance, Katherine looked a little rough around the edges, mostly with local Aboriginals loitering around and looking a little menacing (later we found out there is little to worry about as much of the shenanigans are directed within their own groups). We pulled into an inner city Backpackers which we had been told had a discount for cyclists to camp in their yard. Coco, the owner, was quick to greet us and made us feel really welcome. Coco was very active in the Art scene and promoted Aboriginal Art through his attached gallery. As an ex buffalo herdsman by trade he knew the Territory as well as anyone. He told us tales of remote areas in the Top End that are so unbelievably beautiful you would think you were in paradise.
Once we had settled in our first job was to find the nearest supermarket and replenish our depleted food stores. Woolworths, the first supermarket we had seen since Darwin and the last one we would see until at least Tennant Creek 700km away was luckily around the corner.
The main attraction of the Katherine area is the Katherine Gorge, a series of 13 sandstone gorges carved out by the Katherine River as it heads from Arnhem Land towards the Timor Sea. The Jawoyn Aboriginal people regained ownership of the land as late as 1989 and now lease the land to the Parks and Wildlife Commission. Aboriginal traditions such as hunting and spiritual ceremonies are still carried out in the area.
The best way to see the gorge is to hire a canoe, but unfortunately this was not possible at the time as the unusually rainy wet season had only just finished. There were still some saltwater crocodiles lurking in the gorge, which meant it was not safe for swimming or canoeing until they were relocated. Due to budget constraints (a common theme in Oz) we could not afford a cruise, so we decided to do a bush walk that wound up onto the ridge overlooking the gorge.
Once we got back to Katherine we prepared our food supply for the next section and hoped our calculations were correct as it was 700km until the next decent town and the riding was only going to get tougher.