You’ve gotta stay hydrated, mate

When driving through the Australian Outback, as I did last week, it’s absolutely imperative that you stay hydrated. Rest stops are so few and far between that when you see anything man-made, you stop. It doesn’t matter if it’s a general store, pub, bar, hotel, motel, roadhouse, gas station or a windmill and cattle trough – just stop. They actually make this pretty easy as most establishments combine all of the above and there’s one every 200-300 km.

Yesterday I posted an account of what I did on March 27, 28, 29. Well, I took another three-day, two-night road trip during the first week of April. Here’s my blow-by-blow account. I’m calling it “100 Ways To Stay Hydrated in the Australian Outback.”

Tuesday, March 31
Once again I was up sparrow fart and standing on the curb outside my hostel at 5:30. I didn’t exactly fall in love with Alice Springs but it was tough to say goodbye to the YHA Hostel, especially the ‘Joey’ that lives in a laundry basket behind the front desk. (He’s an orphan and his adoptive ‘mom’ brings him to work with her each day.)

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I opted to travel with a company called Wayoutback Tours for my three-day, two-night road trip from Alice Springs to Darwin in the tropical Northern Territory. The driver, Jason, was right on time and since I was the third to board, I got yet another prime seat. I think my luck is turning! Within 15 minutes we had stopped at two more hostels and filled the bus with 20 passengers.

My first impression of my fellow travellers was that they were a decent group of people, but since many of them were coming off the same three-day trip from Uluru, I was afraid that the few of us who were joining in Alice might be seen as outsiders. Thankfully that didn’t turn out to be the case. Funny how a common interest in cold beer can bring a diverse crowd together.

So, what lies along a 1500 km stretch of the Stuart Highway between Alice Springs and Darwin, you ask? Very little, to tell you the truth. There’s Barrow Creek, Threeways, Daly Waters, Katherine and Adelaide River and that’s about it – a small town every 300 km.

Our first stop was a roadside monument indicating that we were entering The Tropic of Capricorn. I’m not entirely sure what “Going Troppo” means, nor why I should care what tropic I’m entering, but it was good to get off the bus, stretch the legs, and dip into the cooler.

Stop #2 was the Ti Tree Roadhouse. I had a toasted egg sandwich for $11.50. I could have consumed the free water that we had on the bus but in an abundance of caution, I opted to go for bottled water at every opportunity. Okay, sometimes it wasn’t water.

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One of the nearby cattle stations was looking for a handyman. I considered applying. Doing something like that could be considered “Going Troppo.”

Around lunchtime we stopped at Barrow Creek Telegraph Station and an adjoining hotel, bar and gas station. Now this place had character! I poked around out back, half expecting to find the General Lee, or perhaps some cars used in filming Max Max, but no such luck.

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I only have one piece of advice for anyone visiting this joint: Do NOT order a Perrier. Don’t ask why, just don’t. And don’t expect to get service in the ‘dining room.’ Michael, the Italian born owner / bartender wasn’t too interested in serving liquor or the Mrs. Mac’s Pies that looked like they’d been in the warming oven for a few weeks. He was keen to show this international group of travellers his World Class collection of crap that other international travellers have either left behind or mailed back to him. Every week he gets mail from all over the world, he said. I take it that the mail is delivered once a week in Barrow Creek.

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I didn’t notice any Canadian flags, and I was quite sure that he’d have the good sense to hide any Toronto Maple Leafs jerseys that people had discarded, so I asked what Canadiana he possessed. It turned out that he had ‘heaps’ as they say in Oz. He even showed me a neat bar trick that one can perform with a toonie. He grabbed a pool cue and pointed out several Canadian flags, new and old versions of the $1, $2, $5, $10 and $20 bills, a puck used in a 1980s Canada Cup tournament, a piece of moose jerky, numerous lapel pins, and a non-winning ‘Roll Up The Rim to Win’ cup.

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A few hours later we stopped for lunch at the Devil’s Marbles. Tourists can’t resist climbing all over these ancient rock formations, and since there are no signs advising otherwise, I did as well. Don’t worry, there’s no way I was going to move that piece of rock even if I did put my weight into it. No damage was done.

By late afternoon we reached Banka Banka Cattle Station where we camped for the night. Some people went for a short nature walk while others stuck around camp and played with a cow, duck and snake. The station owner’s son claimed the duck was by far the most dangerous of the lot.

Wednesday, April 1
Jason filled the bus with diesel, and took out a second mortgage to pay the tab, while the passengers ate ice-cream, raided the onboard esky (Coleman-style cooler), and played with another snake who resides in a cage at a roadhouse whose name escapes me. The snake is a Black Headed Python. I didn’t forget that part. Jason said he generally won’t bite the fist 10 people to pose with him, but after that all bets are off. I made sure I was #8 in line.

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There were 20 of us on the bus and everyone wanted a photo with the python, which meant there were about 12 chances for a python attack after I was done with him. Not wanting to be any part of that, I headed outside to chat with the driver of this rig.

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Gene Sprott spends most of his time driving ‘road trains’ like this up and down the Stuart Highway. Today he’s hauling two trailers full of “general merchandise” and one “reefer” (refrigerated unit) from Adelaide to Darwin. He prefers to drive solo so he makes plenty of stops and sleeps in the cab at night. I asked why he didn’t have a second driver but he said that it was just too dangerous to “drive right through.” I think he was referring to driving at night. While 150 pound kangaroos can do a lot of damage to a car, Gene was more concerned about hitting a cow.

There are stretches of the Stuart Highway where commercial trucks are limited to 130 km per hour while 4-wheeled passenger vehicles can travel as fast as they want. A few were going about 150 when they passed our bus. I say “a few” as you can go 30 minutes or more without seeing a vehicle traveling in any direction, much less wanting to pass.

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Sucking back 3 to 5 liters of water every day is one thing, enjoying it is another matter. We generally stopped every three hours and at every stop there was a chance to try something new. Two of my favourite ‘alternative hydration methods’ were Bundaberg Ginger Beer and Fairy Floss (candy floss) flavoured freezies. I wasn’t a big fan of Paul’s Iced Coffee. They sell it by the tanker load though.

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We arrived at Daly Waters around noon and headed straight for the famous Daly Waters Roadhouse. That was an easy decision as there isn’t much else in Daly Waters.

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The roadhouse dates back to the 1930s and has the patina to prove it. Many of the customers had some ‘patina’ as well.

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(Click the above link for a short video tour of Daly Waters Pub / cute bird video)

I missed the best part of this little bird and bartender show. At one point the bartender said, “watch out, the bird will fly,” so I put the phone down. She then tossed a cracker into the air and the bird caught it in mid-air and flew straight out the door. Apparently he drops by once a day for his snack. The staff can set their watches by him as he arrives at 12:30 on the button.

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Unfortunately the helicopter was being serviced so we missed out on another scenic ride. As the sign says, the next Macca’s is 286 km away. The next anything is 286 km away.

Humans need access to water, and cattle are no different. In fact, the stockmen of the outback control their heard by controlling when and where they get access to fresh water. There is no surface water in this territory so everything the cattle get to drink is pumped to the surface and stored in overhead tanks. The days of stockmen riding hundreds of kilometers on horseback to round up the heard are long gone. So too are the days of flying a helicopter over these vast stations. These days the farmer sits in a nice air-conditioned office and is able to open and close one-way gates and turn water taps on and off via satellite solar powered and satellite-controlled systems. When the farmer wants the cattle to move to a fresh paddock, or to move closer to the highway for pickup, he just turns off their water. The older cattle in the heard know that it’s time to move on to the next paddock. The younger ones follow along, single file.

On the second night we camped just outside the town of Katherine. The good news was that the “campground” had both wallabies and infrastructure. The bad news is that the wallabies made themselves scarce at dusk, there were “agitated” crocs in the river that ran beside our tents, and the showers, toilets and sinks were in a bad state of repair. I guess you could put a positive spin on it and say they were in “a good state of disrepair.”

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Before heading to camp we made a pit stop at the local drive-thru liquor and beer store. (Attention Auntie Kathleen: We’re big kids and we can handle this kind of thing.)

This was my fourth night of sleeping “swag” and I thoroughly enjoyed it, even if we did get a few drops of rain around 4:00 a.m.

Thursday, April 2
The last leg of the trip was the longest, but fortunately we broke it up with a few stops. Some of the people on the bus were eager to swim in a natural spring near Katherine Gorge. I wasn’t thrilled about the possibility of joining the food chain, so despite the tour leader’s insistence that there were very few if any floating handbags (crocs) in this water, I was happy to watch from shore.

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While Alice Springs in central Australia is dry and dusty, the area known as ‘The Top End’ is wet and humid for most of the year. The period from Christmas to Easter is considered the wet season. And wet it was. We drove through some pretty deep water at times. Even when we were driving on dry pavement (they call it bitumen), the humidity was about 298%, give or take.

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I know that we made a few more stops on each of the three days but since I didn’t keep very good notes at the time and my camera was often out of juice, I’m now having trouble making a complete list. I do remember our final dinner in Darwin though. About 16 of us sat down for dinner and some “hydration” at a place called Monsoon’s. As the name implies, Monsoon’s is far from dry.

You’ve gotta stay hydrated, mate.

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