The drive north from Alice was through country we’d already traversed so we pushed on past some places we’d already seen such as the Devil’s Marbles. The drive to Mataranka took three days with camp stops just north of Barrow Creek on Murray Downs Road and a second night just north of Elliot near Newcastle Waters Station.
We couldn’t resist another float down the Bitter Springs Thermal Creek and it was remarkable how quiet it was compared with the last time we were here probably two months ago when it was cooler and many more travellers passing through here.
From Mataranka we headed up the highway and then off onto the Central Arnhem Highway….otherwise known as “the track”. Only 700kms to go until we landed at the top of the Gove Peninsular, we settled in for the ride with a mixed bag of road conditions from smooth sailing on freshly-graded dirt to rough-as-guts corrugations and washed out floodways that shook us to bits.
We passed through a few small Aboriginal communities but eventually it was a very quiet road through the savannah woodlands, fires trickling along through the grassland, buffalo herds crossing the track and trying to stand their ground by stopping in the middle and staring down their horns at us, and the occasional donkey.
We decided to break the trip into two sections by camping a bit over half way up the track. We just chose a spot and set up. The second day was pretty good driving with the exception of a convoy of ‘tag-along-tour’ people which was seven 4WDs all driving together creating a huge amount of dust as they went past on the narrow track. We also had to navigate around a road train which was driving very slow trying to find the least corrugated path – we had to call him up on the UHF and tell him we were going to pass him up his left side which is most likely against the road rules but he was going to take a while to rattle back across and let us past on the right.
We eventually got close to Nhulunbuy and found the trails that lead off to the various ‘recreation areas’ that we had received a permit to visit and camp at. We bypassed Macassans Beach which is very exposed to wind from all directions and pulled in at the next camping area on Turtle Beach. In busy times quite a few people would pack in here but really there is only two designated camps – maybe three if you split the back area and put two groups in there.
The beachfront campsite had a couple in there but the rest of the camping areas were empty. We decided to leave some camp chairs set up to claim the spot while we did a dash around to Little Bondi which was the final coastal campground in this section. The track into Little Bondi is boggy sand and a tight, one-vehicle track but we got in pretty easy – mostly just nervous that someone might be coming out gunning it the other way. At the beach there were a few small, undefined spots where you could set up camp or otherwise most people drove onto the beach and found a spot along the sand and set up camp. There was even a camper trailer on the beach and a tinny tied up in the water.
We decided Turtle Beach was the best option and we trundled back around and claimed our spot. Funnily enough, the reason the fire was still warm was because the people at the beachfront campsite had packed and moved from our new spot to the ‘beachfront’ spot when another group had left – the old campsite shuffle trying to upgrade and move up in the world. We had to slum it all of 20 metres back from the sand. Down on the beach we were in awe of the small, secluded, rugged little cove that we had found and quickly decided that we would be staying here for the 7 days our permit allowed.
Unfortunately, just as we were settling in with everything we needed, our fridge started to struggle and the battery voltage seemed to be dropping very low whenever the fridge switched on. We tried keeping the solar panels chugging away and that seemed to keep things ok during daylight when we could soak some rays through the panels but as soon as that power source was gone, the battery failed to provide anything to the fridge. In hindsight, we’d been noticing for a couple of weeks that the battery was holding at very low volts – instead on happily sitting at 12 or 12.5v, it was often dropping down to 11 or less and the fridge would sense this and switch off. Our first trip into Nhulunbuy – about an hour away – was planned – not just for a new battery but also to replenish the food supplies we thought we had – particularly the frozen meat that was starting to all defrost at once.
Reaching the outskirts of Nhulunbuy, we quickly saw what the town was built on – a big bauxite mine and a massive aluminium smelter with all the haul roads, conveyor belts and utes with flashing lights and fluro flags that go with a mining operation. The positive is that – despite the remoteness – the population size means there are various services available. For the battery we started out at Tyrepower and Geoff, the owner, quickly confirmed the battery was stuffed (‘stuffed’ is an expert, technical battery term).
Next question was ‘how do we get a warranty replacement for a battery that’s only 8 months old?’ – unfortunately our brand of battery is not an Australian-wide brand and after we asked at Gove Toyota as well, we realised we were buying a new battery ourselves. Luckily Mark from TJM Coffs Harbour where we got the battery fitted was 100% helpful and, once he got our SOS call from the remote north (very, very remote), quickly covered the cost of the new battery. Keep that kind of customer service in mind next time you are setting up your car for the outback – go TJM! We ended up getting the battery from Gove Toyota who fitted it for us.
Next hurdle was yet another permit – we’d already got a permit from the Land Council to drive 700kms through Aboriginal land, another permit from Dhimirru to visit and camp on their land around the Gove Peninsular, and now we learned that we needed a permit from the ‘Alcohol Office’ to buy some beer and wine. Everyone in Nhulunbuy needs a permit – even to drink in your own home – and definitely travellers need one to buy grog or the bottle shop quickly points you to the door empty-handed. Once we’d sorted that out (we got a two week permit in case we were thirsty later!) we shopped for some supplies and we were back on track. There’s a Woolies supermarket but it’s one befitting the remoteness – small, most things you need but limited brands, the milk section and fresh fruit/veg will be full one day and then completely empty the next time you come in.
We spotted an Op shop that had shelves full of books out the front undercover. They’d just closed but the nice ladies said the books were free to take. We asked about the chances of finding Harry Potter books because Lachie is churning through the first Philosopher’s Stone. No luck unfortunately but Josh and Amy got a new book each to keep us going. As a postscript, we came back through for some shopping three days later and stopped at the book shelves to find the next two books of Harry Potter – in brand new condition – sitting there waiting for us!
We had a crack at fishing at the Nhulunbuy boat ramp into deep water which is dredged so the barge out to Groote Eylandt and other large vessels can dock. We could see big fish and had been told this was the place to catch tuna and mackerel. Pulling a lure across the boat ramp, Josh got smashed and had a good fish on his line and a good fight on his hands. Eventually bringing it in to the rocks we were looking at a big snapper that was going to be difficult to grab not having a net or gaff. Just as Amy got down the rocks and went to get hold of it….snap…..the moment it was slightly out of the water the dead weight just broke the line right at the lure. Devastating because the fish was great but the lure was brand new as well and the fish took it as the trophy for the winner of the fight.
The boys had a good play on the skate park with their scooters – the highlight being the chilled water bubbler that was very nice and refreshing. There’s a good lookout in the middle of town too that is worth a visit. The hill it’s on is some sort of sacred site and there’s a tower you climb up to get a great vantage point over the area.
When you are sick and tired of playing in the saltwater, Goanna Lagoon and the Latram River are worth a visit – the river has shallow, beautiful, crystal clear water running over a sandy bottom and there are some campsites here that are included in your permit.
Macassans Beach is the other camping area which you could walk to from Turtle Beach – maybe 5kms. We pulled in to have a look along the rock platforms and walk through a small area where the story of the Macassan visits has been recorded by the Aboriginal people in the form of loose rock arrangements that have been interpreted to show the boats, cooking techniques, equipment and layout of the Macassan camps.
The Macassans were coming here from Indonesia since at least the 1700’s to collect Trepang – the sea slugs – which they put through various stages of cooking and preserving at this site. They would camp for months each year and then return to Indonesia with their haul to be traded with the Chinese. The Aboriginal people traded with them and worked for them and even sailed to Indo and back with them. They adopted their boat designs and it was overall a friendly cooperative relationship.
The second time we headed into Nhulunbuy we managed to pull up in town to a hissing noise and a rapidly deflating tyre. Not having had a flat tyre for the whole trip so far we were devastated that our trusty Mickey Thompsons had taken a hit (admittedly the brand-new, deep-treaded, shiny-black tyres that started the trip with us were now looking old, balding and grey with large chunks missing as a result of some of the harsh tracks we’d been on!!). Pulling out the tyre lever we discovered it wouldn’t fit the new wheel nuts we’d installed – what a shocker! Josh got some foul looks for managing to travel around Australia without the proper sized wheel brace! Rummaging through for the next tool we found a socket and that did the job so we got the spare on and headed out to our mate Geoff at Tyrepower. The puncture was a stake through the wall of the tyre but they managed to repair it ok while Geoff talked us through his orchid collection that hung around his yard.
Back on the road and we returned to camp where we switched the spare and the repaired wheel back around. Not possibly able to damage his reputation any further, Josh managed to break the socket while removing a wheel nut (foul looks is a major understatement) and a third tool was called upon – luckily a ring spanner was found that fitted – not ideal but it did the job. Some new campers near us let us use their proper wheel brace – like, a real proper one, that actually fits the wheel nuts you have on your car….- and we were back in business.
Turtle Beach lived up to its name with turtles coming in each night and digging holes to lay eggs. We did a beach spotlight each night but the turtles came up after we’d gone to bed. Unfortunately, another beach visitor – the resident dingo – also dug holes to expose the eggs and feast on whatever it could. The dingo seemed to be digging up older nests with more developed turtles that seemed close to hatching.
Two car loads of traditional owners came down one day and, seeing the turtle tracks, used a stick to poke down and try and find the nests to raid for a feed. Lachie was appalled and we quickly learnt to cover the turtle tracks each morning so neither human nor dingo could trace them.
Cammy has mastered the art of casting his fishing line and spent lots of time at the water’s edge. Finally, while the rest of us were lazing up the beach in the shade of our casuarina, we heard a frantic squeal and ran as fast as we could when we realised Cam had landed a small Trevally – not quite big enough for a keeper but very, very exciting. Dolphins, sharks, the resident buffalo, great birds and the turtles made it an enjoyable place to experience.
Eventually we had to depart the Gove Peninsular and made our way back out ‘The Track’ – stopping off to break up the 700km trip for a night in an old quarry site that provided a good spot for camping and a fire.