Darwin via the Dirt (part 5 -- Nhulunbuy East Arnhem land)

Tuesday, Jul 06, 2010 at 20:00

Member - Michael John T (VIC)

Our stay at Tennant Creek was only overnight as we were anxious to get the 600 km bitumen section to Elsey NP out of the way. Of course you can't drive past Daly Waters pub without calling in, so that was a must. Elsey camp ground has become very popular, last time Brenda and I were there in 2001 we were virtually the only ones there, this time we were lucky to pick up a camping spot. It's a lovely area on the Roper River with walks, swimming etc.. we stayed two nights. Our traveling partners, David and Koen left us here, and we in turn drove the 50 kms from Mataranka to the turnoff onto the East Arnhem Hyw, our destination in two days time Nhulunbuy. (722kms).
The first 50 kms to Beswick Community was bitumen but from there on all dirt. The road a week before we left home had been closed and permits withheld, due mainly to the swollen rivers and in particular the Goyder, so we were unsure of what to expect. Surprisingly the early sections for the most part were very good, some corrugations (which certainly slowed the on coming cattle trucks down - you could hear them coming for miles), dust and patches of bull dust. Dennis experienced our first and only puncture (on the T van) for the trip. The stop to replace the tyre gave the girls a chance to take numerous photos of small flowers and the beautiful flowering eucalypts among the semi tropical vegetation.

Lunch stop was on an escarpment with a great view over the surrounding country side. From there through Conways and past Mainora Store and camping area (closed - so much for designated camping areas). We had been passing numerous small water holes and small creeks, the most spectacular of all being Flying Fox Creek with it's fast flowing water through paper barks and plenty of blue water lillies. Just past here I pulled up at another waterhole only to spot the rare hooded parrot (male and female) I even got a photo of the male. Looking around this area we came across a flock of finches which include Masked Finches, Yellow-rumped Manikins and again the elusive Gouldian Finches, quite a find for us. On the way back we checked this area out again, the only bird a cormorant on the water hole. You just have to be lucky enough to be there at the right time.

Along the way we had encountered some light but patchy showers causing the red dust to stick to the vehicles. Passing Bulman Community we encountered hundreds of horses. It was around here we planned to stop overnight hopefully on the Wilton River. About 300 meters off the road we camped on the confluence of the Wilton and Weemol Creek, a delightful spot and obviously well used by the locals for fishing (no luck for us). We shared the camp with the occasional mossie, lemon bellied flycatchers, Red tailed black cockatoos, and a strikingly coloured azure kingfisher among others. On the way back we stayed here as well, finding a dead Johnston river croc floating belly up just below our camp, it was gone in the morning ??.
Overcast skies, hot and extremely humid (90 plus humidity which we experienced for the next month, unseasonally so) as we made our way over a much rougher road, averaging 64 kph for the first three hours drive. Great picturesque country- side with the occasional buffalo sighting. Continuing showers became heavy rain as the road (often deep sand requiring 4wd) turned to red mud. On one occasion a small truck approached us head on slewing sideways at us, most disconcerting. By the time we reached Nhulunbuy we were all covered in thick red mud.

A slightly complicated system of permits apply in visiting Nhulunbuy. Although I must compliment the aboriginal rangers for their helpfulness with these. You first need a permit (free) to travel through Arnhem Land, on arrival you buy a visitors permit ($20 each for 1 week) which allows you access to most places in the area. Other restricted and controlled camping areas require you to make a booking for which you pay a further camping fee. unfortunately it was school holidays whilst we were there and most of the controlled areas were booked out by the Nhulunbuy locals. These camping area are all between 9 and 50 kms around the township. The only camping within the town itself is at the local motel where they have recently opened up a small camp ground.
The rangers told us where to wash our vehicles, at Rio Tinto's (Alcan) boat washing facility almost next to the Bauxite refinery, and this took us a good hour, emerging with reasonably clean vehicles and some very wet washers. We made our way out to Macassan Beach (35 kms out) via some wet and rough tracks, set up camp under the Shee-oak trees with a splendid view over the choppy but very blue sea. Setting up the annex we settled in for a windy but pleasant night. About 2 am the wind and rain played havoc with the set up and it was all hands on deck pulling it all down getting very wet in the process, a rough night ensued. Next morning after about an hour all was dry again and we decided to move a couple of kms to the next camp area, Turtle Beach. This was a well sheltered site, large enough for 4 vehicles, surrounded by lush tropical vegetation with a view to the lovely little beach just 20 meters away. Behind was a walk to and along the headland with great views along the coast. A lovely spot, we stayed a couple of nights here, enjoying walks and playing golf on the beach, mostly we had the place to ourselves.

Crossing the Goyder on the way up required some local knowledge to avoid the deep hole as you exit the river. With the water fast running at about 1 meter deep we were lucky to meet a group returning who pointed out the best way to cross it. They also mentioned that they spent a week camped at Rainbow Cliffs, just 9 kms from Nhulunbuy, and that became our next destination. What a lovely spot, with the drier, more open bushland right down to the sea, flanked by beautifully coloured low cliffs and a small beach area and rock shelves at low tide. A short walk took you to the base of the closed (sacred site) hill/bluff. The sun set across the sanguine waters with the lights of the township just appearing made for a glorious setting especially with the abating breeze. Wrong, during the early hours of the morning the midgies struck and with a vengeance, all of us, as well as another couple (Rob and June from WA) were badly bitten. So much for staying here, if anything can spoil a holiday or any other day it's midgies. Still there were plenty of other areas to look at and we intended to do that any way. Our permit was for 8 days only (because of a commitment in Darwin), it needed to be for at least 3 weeks and we had been advised of that before hand.

The township of Nhulunbuy is a well set out mining town, excellent facilities with an extensive shopping centre including a couple take away coffee shops. One of Brenda and my regrets was that we didn't spend sufficient time exploring the town sites and beaches, it will have to be next time, and we will go back. Stocked up again (the motel allowed us to use their washing machines and have a shower, free, great people) we headed down to the small community of Yirrkala a closed community set in a perfect position over looking magnificent blue seas and white sandy beaches. Although it is closed they do welcome you to visit their arts facility and to buy local art (if you can afford it). Actually it is spectacular work, bark paintings and elaborately designed totems, much of it prepared for the annual Gama Festival held each August (look it up on the net).

From here to Latram River via a relatively rough and at times tight (for the Tvan) track with a few camping sites set along the shallow and pretty river. The area is very popular with the locals and their families. The girls were in for a refreshing dip in the shallow water while Den and I kept an eye out for he supposed croc that was in the area. Actually a couple of hundred meters up there was a croc trap set, but it had been there for a while, at least by the smell of it. As we sat enjoying a light ale (still too hot for a red) the resident great bower bird was hell bent on joining us and our nibbles. A small fire with tea cooking on it, the peacefulness of the area only broken by many bird calls made for another lovely experience. As they say, "I wonder what the poor people are doing".

Next morning back out the track, down the hwy a short distance and into Goanna Lagoon, really the same river and about one to two kilometers up stream. Still another rough track in and few camping spots available. Luckily we were able and pleased to share one with Rob and June who we met at Rainbow Cliffs. The river here has a sandstone section washed out into narrow miniature gorges and replicates a refreshing and vigorous spa. The families around us are from Nhulunbuy and work at the refinery, 4 days on 4 days off. We were able to find out a little about the mining and refinery operations up here from them. As I mentioned it is operated by Alcan and they export raw bauxite and alumina (refined) to Canada and Japan. Low grade product - hydrate- is sent to China.

We now had only a couple of days left on our permit, so up early for a swim and cuppa before the quick pack up. The weather forecast predicted 28 degrees with 97% humidity, it didn't take long to reach the prediction, it was 22 degrees when we got up. The 5km drive out along the rough and narrow track was slow as the Tvan negotiated the tight turns and then a further 25 kms down the road to the Giddy River turnoff as described to us by the ranger a few days previously. Once again into the bush where we found quite a large camp site beside the river. After an extensive clean up and burying of much rubbish and the remains of a large fire, we were able to enjoy the area. The area has a real natural beauty with an annex of the river rejoining the main flow over a small cascade, and down stream a small but impressive waterfall running into a large open river section. Brenda and I walked down stream for 2-3 kilometers following the tracks of a buffalo. I had suggested that if we confronted him that she would hold him off while I went for help, I lost brownie points for this, - we didn't even hear him. Back at camp a paddle in the rock pool but definitely no swimming here.
Setting off the next morning I had just pulled onto the road out from the bush track and slowed to let a reasonably fast moving vehicle pass before moving on, about 10 kilometers further on we were flagged down by a young chap. He put his head into the cabin of our truck and said "you are Mr Tolland from Castlemaine". It turned out that he was a student of my school some 10 years earlier, I shudder to think how he recognized me passing at that speed and after so long, surely in my new life I've changed some what, -- may be not. Nevertheless it was good to meet up with him. Later on in Kakadu a similar meeting took place with another ex student, by which time Al and Den were beginning to wonder what was going on.

The trip out to the highway and onto Edith Falls was uneventful, the Goyder was down to about 200 cm and anyhow we were now experts at crossing it, the Wilton River camp was just as good as on the way up and the road out brought no surprises for us. East Arnhem land is a gem of a place and deserves much more time to really appreciate it. There were places that we couldn't get to and or didn't have time to see. It's definitely a place to return to.
More photos..

Up dated 23 May 2012
We retired to travell
It's time to go again...
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