From Katherine to Alice

November 1, 2023
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AFTER Katherine, I embarked on a long trip south — nearly 1,500 km in total from Darwin — to Alice Springs. This railway map that I saw on a wall is an excellent guide to some of what’s on the way, whether you go by train, bus, or car.


Not long after setting out, I pulled into Mataranka, which is really just a dot on the map but made famous by a hugely popular 1908 novel called We of the Never-Never, by Jeannie Gunn, “Mrs Aeanas Gunn” as she styled herself by the formal and now extinct custom of using her husband’s first name as well as his last. Jeannie lived with Aenas on nearby Elsey Station, of which he was the boss, throughout nearly the whole of 1902 and the first months of 1903.

Replica of the Gunn’s Homestead

They lived there until Mr Gunn sadly died of a tropical disease in March 1903 — another factor that helps to explain the belated colonisation of the Top End, I would imagine — after which, Jeannie moved back to what we like to call civilisation.

The novel was very much based on the real-life experiences of the Gunns on Elsey Station. Jeannie explains its curious title thus:

And All of Us, and many of this company, shared each other’s lives for one bright, sunny year, away Behind the Back of Beyond, in the Land of the Never-Never; in that elusive land with an elusive name — a land of dangers and hardships and privations yet loved as few lands are loved — a land that bewitches her people with strange spells and mysteries, until they call sweet bitter, and bitter sweet. Called the Never-Never, the Măluka [Mr Gunn] loved to say, because they, who have lived in it and loved it Never-Never voluntarily leave it. Sadly enough, there are too many who Never-Never do leave it. Others — the unfitted — will tell you that it is so called because they who succeed in getting out of it swear they will Never-Never return to it. But we who have lived in it, and loved it, and left it, know that our hearts can Never-Never rest away from it.

Mataranka might be just a dot on the map, but it is really one of the more pleasant places in Outback Australia, still close enough to the sea to get enough rainfall to keep down the dust and keep up plenty of green vegetation.

Elsey National Park, one of the many in the Territory, is named after Elsey Station.

Another of the attractions of Mataranka was a thermal pool and some cooler springs, just as well since you don’t really want to poach in hot water in the tropics.

Daly Waters

A short distance south from Mataranka, I got to Daly Waters, which has a historic and picturesque pub.

Daly Waters is also the site of an even more historic Stuart Tree, one that has Stuart’s initials carved into it from 1861 or 1862.

Tennant Creek

The next town of any size was Tennant Creek, several hundred kilometres further south, which evidently has a mining history.

By this stage it is fair to say that I was leaving the jungly bits of the Territory behind and getting into the sort of dusty terrain that is much closer to the usual idea of the Outback.

The town did indeed look a bit dustier than earlier ones, but it has a nice cafe, the Bay Leaf Cafe, where, as in Katherine, they also have the custom of ‘Coffee with a Cop’ whereby anyone can discuss who the local troublemakers might be and what they are up to.

The Bay Leaf Cafe, Tennant Creek

There was a protest while I was there, about an incident in which the mayor of the Barkly Region, a huge area that includes Tennant Creek, was filmed pinning an indigenous boy to the ground after the boy, apparently, broke into the mayor’s property. The mayor sounded like a bit of a loose cannon to me, he’d lately also been arrested by his own cops on a charge of drugged driving twice in less than six months. Hmmm, possibly time for coffee with a cop to discuss that most notorious of local troublemakers, the mayor.

Protest at Tennant Creek against the Mayor

Tennant Creek was also the site of a massacre in 1917 where, over a year or so, about fifty Aborigines were hunted and shot at night.

Karlu Karlu

I stayed at the Devils Marbles Hotel and Camping Ground at Wauchope, a locality which is nonexistent as a town beyond the pub and the campground. Like the Daly Waters Pub, the Devils Marbles Hotel is one of Australia’s most iconic outback pubs.

The Devils Marbles Hotel

Inside the Devils Marbles Hotel Forecourt

The Devils Marbles Hotel just before dawn

It provides overnight accommodation and refreshment for truckers on the lonesome Stuart Highway, and also for people visiting nearby Karlu Karlu, the natural rock-formation site also known as the Devil’s Marbles.

I camped there overnight, and I was about the only person doing so. The evening was actually getting quite chilly and everyone else was staying in the cabins. I heard some truckers saying that they’d forgotten their ‘swag’ (camping gear) and therefore had to stay in the cabins as well: I think they were just trying to save face because I could hear.

We were still in the tropics at Wauchope, but in desert areas it often gets cold at night, absolutely regardless of the temperature during the day. Karlu Karlu is also about 400 m above sea level, not that high, but enough to knock off another degree or two.

And so, to the Karlu Karlu or the Devils Marbles, which I saw on the way in and visited again at dawn the next day. It consists of ancient rocks eroded into round shapes, and has for a long time been a traditional Aboriginal meeting-place.

Carpark at Karlu Karlu

But the real magic of Karlu Karlu comes at dawn.

A lot of the rock formations are just so weird, resembling modern sculptures.

Here’s an especially remarkable formation, of which I will get a closer picture next time.

There were a couple of interesting walks to go on as well.

And a lookout.

Here’s a short film I made of driving down the endless highway, and then wandering around Karlu Karlu, including a view from the lookout.

Wycliffe Well

After Karlu Karlu, I came to Wycliffe Well, which has the largest number of UFO sightings in Australia. Not sure why that is — clear nights, perhaps.

One of the things that was a surprise is that there is such a thing as a desert crab!

Barrow Creek

The next place I pulled into was Barrow Creek. Here’s a photo of the sign about the old 1872 telegraph station, one of several on the line that was strung from Adelaide to Darwin only ten years after the route had been trekked by Stuart’s party. You can see from the shadow that the sun is almost vertical!

Here’s the telegraph station with its generous verandahs, a feature of Territory architecture from that day on. It must have been a lonely posting in those days.

Actually, there is a grim twist to that thought, for Barrow Creek was the site of a group of massacres shortly after the telegraph station was built, in which roughly 80 Aboriginals were eventually killed, largely as reprisals for the death of two of the telegraph workers, whom the local Kaititja tribe killed because they had, apparently, been guilty of “kidnapping Kaititja women for sex.” A sordid tale indeed.

What doubtless contributed to this sort of thing was a widespread belief that Jeannie Gunn writes about, as late as the early 1900s, that white women did not belong in the remoter parts of the Northern Territory, even as wives.

As a place where white women were not supposed to go but black women were liable to be kidnapped, the early Outback NT must have attracted the very worst sorts of riffraff in the decades after Stuart.

(Mrs Gunn thought that the people at Mataranka were decent and kindly, and that the white and Aboriginal communities also got on well, a view held by others: but it sounds like the folk of Mataranka might have been lucky in that regard.)

Heading south, I went through the community of Ti (or tea) Tree, named after a local relative of New Zealand’s mānuka shrub (not to be confused with Tī or cabbage tree in New Zealand), and crossed the Tropic of Capricorn.

Anmantjere Family

Just north of Alice Springs, I came past the giant statues of an Aboriginal family at Anmantjere, a place also known as Aileron.

Just south of Anmatjere/Aileron, I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn.

And so, in the end, I arrived in Alice Springs, the subject of my next post!


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