When it rains it pours…

Our luck with weather was about to change.

Until arriving in Victoria the worst weather we had experienced was cold nights and wind. We had that one experience with rain at Nanga Bay but other than that, the cold wind was all that had troubled us. I should have known that travelling closer to Victoria and Tasmania would see the weather gods turn against us.

Just before crossing the border into Victoria we drove through the Hallett Wind Farm area. Producing enough power to supply 200,000 households, the 167 giant wind turbines that make up the Hallett Wind Farm are truly a spectacular sight – I hadn’t seen anything like it before. Spread out over a series of hills in the area around the town of Hallett, I was struck by the beauty of the wind farm. We couldn’t get close enough to hear them turning but they appeared as majestic tributes to modern energy production. It was an interesting juxtaposition to see all the stone ruins in the area around the wind farm. This area was once a large rail area with the town of Peterborough being the hub of stream trains transporting goods from Port Pirie to Broken Hill. Apparently 100 or more trains would pass through Peterborough each day and the surrounding area was built up to support the rail workers. They lived in stone buildings and the ruins of all these buildings now litter the surrounding fields. Seeing these ruins in front of the giant wind turbines was quite a sight.

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Stone ruins in front of turbines – the old and the new
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One of the many hills of turbines near Hallett

We crossed the border and reached Mildura, our first ‘eastern’ destination. We were spending two nights in Mildura, two nights in Echuca and two nights in Ballarat, essentially following the Murray River. Mildura was a shock to our system – they had traffic lights! After spending so much time away from large towns/cities it was quite strange to drive through such a large town. We saw McDonalds, BCF and the Reject Shop all in one block! 😉

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Our time in Mildura was largely to refresh our batteries after a series of one-night stops. We didn’t have any plans ahead of time as to where we wanted to go but it was nice to drive around and see what the town had to offer. We went to Lock 11 and the Mildura Weir, walking along the banks of the river. We also visited Woodsies Gem Shop which was a surprisingly pleasant little find. The Gem Shop advertised a maze and ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of gems which we were interested in seeing. A family business, Woodsies is owned by the Woods family (surprise surprise) and is situated on their own land next to their house. The original shop has expanded now to a thriving café, gem shop, maze and pay-to-enter ‘cave’ that houses their collection of semi-precious gems and related artefacts that have been collected from around Australia and the world. It really was an engaging place that kept us busy for a few hours. There were also a few humourous signs on the displays 😉

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The entrance to Lock 11 and Mildura Weir
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Walking along the Murray River
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Woodsies poking fun at their own display? (note the dead fly which is in a gem display behind a glass wall)
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Finding our way around (and out) of Woodsie’s maze
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More maze musings

Our campsite in Mildura was full of wildlife and interesting sights. Rabbits wandered the grass at night, there were fairy lights in most of the trees and the odd tree carving as well. We even had a very friendly possum visit our site – clearly he/she was used to being fed by the campers because he came right up to us and essentially demanded we feed him!

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Carved tree at our Mildura camp ground

 

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Friendly possum decided to join us for dinner

From here we travelled to Echuca, staying in the near-new Moama Waters caravan park. This park was similar in quality to the Streaky Bay caravan park given how new it was but the difference was we had an ensuite site. I haven’t seen one of these before so it was a bit of a novelty. The site was essentially a drive-through site where you park/set up next to a building that houses a toilet, vanity and shower just for your use only, accessed with a key. We used this as a space to lock our bags etc in when we went off exploring and it was great to have this little luxury right next to our camp site. The fauna visitors this time were in the shape of two ducks that just wandered through the camp site helping themselves to whatever they could find! We had to shoo them away because they seemed to take a liking to the ant powder we’d put down around the bottom of the annex poles.

The site also came with a fair deal of wind and unfortunately we came back to camp one day to find our annex had been blown down. Our neighbours had thoughtfully tied it off so that no further damage would be done but we snapped the new make-shift ridge pole that Brandon had put together back in the first weeks of our trip (after we left the original one at Bramwell Station). Thankfully we had spares of these poles so a new one was soon created 😉 But that was our first taste of the wind that would soon mar a number of future camp sites.

The main activity we planned for Echuca was a Murray River paddle steamer cruise. I remember doing one of these as a kid and I really wanted Charlotte and Brandon to enjoy the paddle steamer like I had once done. We went on the PS Emmylou and enjoyed a nice lunch on board as we cruised up and down the Murray River. At one point we went past the giant pile of wood they have cut up for the Emmylou which impressed Charlotte. She was able to see the engine working as we chugged up the river but I was disappointed to see that the paddle itself was housed behind a series of wooden slats so Charlotte wasn’t able to see that in action. There was a small window looking in to the paddle wheel but it was a little hard to see.

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PS Emmylou
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Enjoying the Murray River
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Daddy and daughter on the PS Emmylou
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Engine room – fuelled by steam, there was a giant wood fire down below this.
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Piles of wood for the PS Emmylou

Leaving Echuca we stopped at McDonalds to grab a quick breakfast. At every stop we make like this Brandon has gotten into the habit of checking our rig – going around the outside to make sure all looks OK, touching the wheel hubs to check nothing is running too hot etc. This is left over from all the corrugations we experienced in the first half of our trip and it certainly helps to avoid potential hazards to check things like this and make sure all your ropes are still tied etc. On this occasion, as Brandon was checking the hubs, he felt that one of the camper’s hubs felt extremely hot, even though we’d only been driving for 10 minutes. This wasn’t a good sign L We drove to a quiet back street that had lots of room for us to pull over and Brandon proceeded to take the entire wheel assembly apart to check the bearing. He could smell burnt grease which can sometimes be a brake issue, but as we’d only been driving for 10 minutes around the Echuca streets, it wasn’t likely to be caused by that. Without a replacement bearing kit on board, all we could do was pack in more grease and hope for the best. We drove very slowly onwards, stopping every 20 minutes or so to check the hub. Thankfully the work that Brandon did must have made a difference because we made it to Ballarat without any problems and in fact, that wheel ended up performing much better than any of the others on the car or camper! Disaster averted 😉

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Hmmm what’s wrong with this picture?
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I think there’s supposed to be a wheel in there somewhere?

When we arrived in Ballarat it was raining, cold and windy. I had decided we would try to get a cabin at the caravan park because we were only here for 2 nights and I didn’t want to pack up a wet camper to then get on the boat with. We’d also be warmer and more comfortable. Thankfully the local Big 4 had a cabin free for us to use, although we still had to use the caravan park amenities. It was a small, quiet caravan park and within walking distance to Sovereign Hill, so this only caveat wasn’t too problematic. It also helped that our cabin was directly across the road from the toilet block 😉 Once we were settled in, I looked out our window from the warm, dry cabin at the others in camper trailers who were setting up in the rain and felt rather satisfied with our decision!

Our main purpose for going to Ballarat was to see Sovereign Hill, another memory I have from my younger days travelling in this area. Sovereign Hill is like a living museum and piece of the Australian goldmining history. Gold was discovered in Ballarat in 1851 and within 10 years the city had grown to be an established town. You walk the streets of Sovereign Hill and soak up the history, the shops are all set up like the shops would have been in the mid 19th century. There’s a blacksmith, a wheel-maker, bakery, and metalsmith. There’s a confectioner, horse and carriage rides and you can even pan for gold in a stream of water that was what the original goldminers used back in the day. All the attractions are staffed by people in period costume who show you how people did those particular trades back in the day. There is also a tour of one of the underground gold mines where you enter and exit on a genuine mine tram that takes you down into the very dark mine. There’s also a ‘gold pour’ where molten gold is poured into a mould to make a $160,000 gold bar. As part of that demonstration and the mine tour we learnt about how the gold was separated from the quartz rock that it came from. The whole day was just fascinating and other than some tired legs by the end of the day, we all had a great time. That being said, it was a nice treat to come home to a warm cabin at the end of the grey and dreary day.

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It was a bit wet and cold in Ballarat
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A goldmine @ Sovereign Hill
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Charlotte trying her hand at using a proper fountain pen and ink in the old school building
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Charlotte trying her hand at using a proper fountain pen and ink in the old school building
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Red coats on the march
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Genuine working parts
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Pouring some valuable gold
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Making a $160,000 gold bar
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Panning for gold
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All that panning for this?

We left Ballarat on the morning of the day we were due to board the Spirit of Tasmania and cross the Bass Strait to Tasmania. It was a relatively quick and easy drive to Melbourne where we caught up with a friend from Charlotte’s original parents group who had agreed to hold some of the stuff we had that we weren’t sure we’d be able to take into Tasmania (e.g. all of Brandon’s frozen fish!). Thanks Matanis family! Great to see you 🙂

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Pretty soon it was time to head to the boat in Port Melbourne. You wouldn’t believe how excited Charlotte was about the boat trip – I don’t think I’ve ever seen her this excited before! We were the first tall car on board (i.e. over 2.1m tall, park in a special area), so we were marshalled on fairly quickly (and, as it turns out, were able to get off pretty early). We had a porthole cabin with 4 bunk beds in it right under the bridge at the front of the boat – Charlotte was even more excited when she realised she could see out the very front of the boat as we were underway. Alas we couldn’t book a deluxe cabin with a large bed in it because they only cater to two people – next time when it’s just us adults 😉

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The Spirit of Tasmania here we come!
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Lining up to board
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Up this ramp…
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… and on to the boat!
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Charlotte loved our porthole – it looks directly out front of the boat
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Goodbye Melbourne!
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Hello Devonport!

The trip started out well with reasonably smooth sailing while we were in Port Phillip Bay. But as soon as we left the bay and went through the headlands the boat started rocking a little more noticeably and I started to feel a little queasy. Too late for a sea sickness pill now! I just had to put up with feeling a little unwell while I showered and got into bed. I figured if I slept through it, all should be OK. Thankfully that’s exactly what happened – I woke up around 5am to lovely smooth sailing as we approached Devonport’s harbour. As predicted, we were amongst the first cars to leave the boat and by 7am we were driving the (very quiet) streets of Devonport 🙂

The second-last part of our big adventure was now about to begin…

Weeks/nights on the road to this point: 12 weeks.

“Go west, life is peaceful there…”

[Bragging rights to the first person who can tell me who sang the song that the title of this post comes from… if you don’t mind showing your age…]

So when I last wrote, we were leaving the Bungle Bungles headed for El Questro (ELQ) and the infamous Gibb River Road. We decided to stay at a 24 hour rest stop on the way to ELQ so as to be there nice and early the next day (to get a better camping spot – see, we’re learning the way of the “we-don’t-take-bookings” camping world). It was our first rest stop camping experience and it was actually quite pleasant. We got there around 2.30pm so we were able to pick a good spot with a shelter and table which reduced the amount of stuff we had to unpack for the night.

[Note – it is worth pointing out here that I am now 150% convinced that we are buying a caravan as soon as we can afford it. The differences between the two modes of travel are never more noticeable than when you pull up to a 24 hour rest stop. If you are in a camper trailer, you huff and puff and have a tanties with your partner, then a more significant argument where maybe one of you walks away in disgust, then you make up and eventually you get the camper level and set up. Caravan folk pull up, put the stabiliser legs down, open the door and pull out their chairs. End of set up. “Save your marriage, buy a caravan”.]

It was with some degree of excitement that we approached the sign to mark the start of the Gibb River Road, and then the turn off for ELQ. We had seen both of these things so often on the DVDs and television shows we’d watched to help plan this trip that it was great to finally be seeing them I the flesh. The drive in to ELQ was corrugated dirt roads (groan) but we let the tyres down (again) and made our way without drama. There were a few water crossings but nothing too substantial and eventually we got to ELQ nice and early. Our plan worked and we secured a lovely shady camping spot down near the Pentecost River. You were allowed to source firewood from anything that was laying on the ground around the property so Charlotte and Brandon went off in search of something for our fire that night (not that we really need it – it only gets to about 15 at night around here!). I couldn’t stop laughing when Brandon came back dragging what looked to be a giant tree trunk. Turned out the joke was on us – for whatever reason, this log left a bitter burning smell through everything. Its ash was very light and flighty and it covered our camp with ash and filled our camper with this disgusting stale-ashtray smell. We don’t really know exactly what sort of timber it was (it was a little porous inside but we don’t know if it was a boab branch or not…) but whatever it was, I’d recommend you never burn it near your campsite!! There is one sort of tree around here that is apparently nicknamed the shitwood tree because when it’s burned, it smells like dog poop. This wasn’t quite like that, but it was equally as noxious.

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We stayed at ELQ for 4 nights and had a lovely time exploring their surrounds. El Questro is essentially a large working cattle station but they have turned themselves into a major tourist attraction in the dry season. There is a fancy homestead you can stay in if you have muchos $$ or else you can slum it like the rest of us in your own camping set up or in the onsite tents. There are lots of gorges on the property that you can walk to (after a short drive), there’s a bar and restaurant, horse riding, helicopter sight-seeing flights (also muchos $$) and cruises. Every night we’d wander up to the bar for happy hour from 5pm and listen to the musician playing that night and relax under the stars. It was here that we discovered Matso’s Ginger Beer. I’ve never really been a big ginger beer fan except for in punch but I decided to give it a go on a whim and I was so pleased I did! It was so refreshing and tasty. And then I discovered that Matso’s brewery is in Broome! Hold me back! A quick google search told me they did brewery tours on Wednesdays and Fridays so we knew we had to stay in Broome long enough to cover at least one of those days! On our final night at ELQ they put on pizzas – they must have known I was experiencing withdrawal after my less than tantalising pizza experience in Kununurra.

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Happy hour!
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My new favourite drink
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There are only a few places I’d be willing to be seen in public in ugg boots – clearly ELQ is one of them!

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We did the walk to El Questro gorge and it was magnificent. Charlotte had a swim in crystal clear water that looked incredible. The fish even came up to her to say hello!

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This was what the whole trip was like – climbing over rocks and boulders – it killed my poor foot 😦

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Unfortunately, the walk involved scrambling over quite a number of rocks and boulders and was quite hard on my foot. It really tested me and I was barely able to walk by the time we got back. The walk was about 1.3km in each direction and just about all of that involved putting your feet on rocks or boulders and not on an even surface. I was in a world of hurt 😦 I strapped up after we got back to camp but it really made us have to think twice about our future walk plans.

Brandon’s shoulder and back were also playing up thanks to long hours in the car and then heavy work setting up the camper each time we stopped (refer above comment about needing a caravan!!!). To top it off, we seemed to be having some small problems with the batteries in our car not holding charge as well as we’d like and the engine running a little hotter than we’d like. No one single issue was a big deal on its own, but put together, they all made us question the sensibility of taking off to tackle 600km of corrugated road in the middle of nowhere with the car not running smoothly and bodily aches and pains that were leaving us feeling less than enthusiastic about the walking and adventures to come.

We discussed the situation and ummed and ahhed and came up with the decision that we’d not do the Gibb River Road in its entirety. We would double back to the Great Northern Highway, south down past the Bungle Bungles, through Halls Creek (where we got some supplies) and start to head north to Fitzroy Crossing and then turn off at Windjana Gorge/Tunnel Creek, heading north west from there. We’d visit Tunnel Creek as a day trip and set up camp somewhere on the other side. The (dirt) road in to Windjana continues and meets up with the Gibb at its northern end so we’d still see the end of the Gibb but be closer to civilisation should anything happen. As we weren’t feeling up to doing much walking, it seemed silly to just drive the Gibb, possibly at risk of damage to the car, just for bragging rights.

We left ELQ with a small sense of disappointment that we weren’t going to see the full Gibb experience but it was a sensible choice and we knew we were doing the right thing in the long run. We spent another night in a 24 hour rest stop south of the Bungle Bungles (by the way – that same bushfire was STILL burning). This rest stop was next to a lovely flowing creek so we were able to put our toes in and freshen up a bit. Most of these sort of rest stops have drop toilets but no water – so no way to wash your hands or shower etc. You need to supply your own for that sort of thing. And the drop toilets take on a bit of a smell after a certain time of day once business starts to pick up so you need to be quite resilient to bad smells if you want to stay in a rest area 😉 By morning they have usually sorted themselves out though so you’re safe if you can make it through the night 😉

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From there it was on to Tunnel Creek. On the road in we saw a few different long-dead cars left on the side of the road. Hadn’t really seen that since we were on the Cape so it was a bit of a surprise. Even more surprising was seeing that one of the dead cars was an 80 series Landcruiser!

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Gosh – what a remarkable place Tunnel Creek is! During the wet season it would be almost completely under water but during the dry season you can walk through the entire cave (with headlamps). There are parts where there is some deeper water you need to wade through, and we had some reptilian company during the walk in places, but it was well worth the effort. It was largely sand we walked on so not as difficult as our past walks. And being underground it was extremely cool and walking through the water made it quite refreshing.

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On the recommendation of some of the others we talked to, Brandon and Charlotte walked a little further at the end of the cave to see some Aboriginal art on the rocks further up. It was probably a little less grand in scale than Brandon had been expecting, but it was impressive all the same.

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(This wily-wily came up in the parking lot as we emerged from the cave – it really looked like a mini twister and had a few kids running for cover!)

After here it was an easy drive to Derby where we got fuel but we didn’t have a good feel about the place so we kept going and ended up setting up for the night at a roadhouse further down the road. It was all you could eat BBQ night and they had cold beer – sounded OK to us! That stop marked 3 overnighters in a row for us and (a) no set up arguments and (b) it was done in the dark. We’re clearly getting used to this!

The next day we pushed on to Broome – and back to civilisation. I’ll leave that for another post 😉 But needless to say, we found the Matso’s brewery! J

Weeks/nights on the road: 5 weeks, 6 nights.

The highway to Hell (and beyond)

Up until this point I had been lead to believe that the worst driving conditions we would encounter would be on the Cape. Boy was I wrong!

We left Adels Grove with the intention of eventually getting to Katherine in the Northern Territory. We looked at the distances and decided to head to Borroloola, just over the NT border, for the night then push on to Katherine the next day. We went north through Lawn Hill Station and then on the Savannah Way to Hell’s Gate Roadhouse, where we stopped for lunch, fuel and water. On the way to Hell’s Gate, Brandon and I commented to each other that we wondered if the Hell that was being referred to was the road in to the roadhouse or the road beyond the roadhouse. We hoped it was the road in, because it was a pretty bouncy, unattractive dirt road. Turns out, we were wrong there too.

The road from Hell’s Gate to Borroloola was atrocious!! And to make it worse, we had bugs and dirt smeared all over the window, corrugations from hell (literally as it turned out), and as we were heading west, we had the sun directly in our sight for almost the entire afternoon. It was really bad. And we were on the road in total for that day for 9 hours. Never again. Our nerves were frayed and all three of us were in one hell of a bad mood when we got to Borroloola. We arrived just on dark and decided to get a cabin for the night because we wanted to head off again in the morning and after the emotionally draining, exhausting day we’d just had, we needed a rest.

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We’ve been on the road for 3 weeks and have just crossed our first state border!
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Never drive west into the setting sun on badly corrugated roads with poor visibility out your window 😦
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In our tired state, from a distance these donkeys looked like people blocking the road in front of us. Gave us a bit of a fright then amusement when we realised what they were 🙂

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Thankfully Borroloola has a nice place to eat so we grabbed a meal, had a hot shower and caught up on some sleep. The road to Katherine from Borroloola was all bitumen so we hoped the next day would be an easier day for us.

For the most part, it was easier. The driving conditions were certainly an improvement, although most bitumen roads in these parts are one lane and every time a car comes in the opposite direction you need to take one side of your car/camper off the road in order to pass oncoming vehicles. This can be a little difficult at times and cars with lesser quality tyres can find that quite dangerous given the large ridge between the bitumen and the dirt next to it. But Brandon managed these diversions with minimum fuss and the car, camper and inhabitants made it unscathed to Katherine. We stopped to make lunch at Daly Waters outside the pub – quite a well-known place and certainly full of character!

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At one point we even saw a bushfire on the road – it might be winter, but the dry 32 degree days make for great fire weather – gulp!

It was another long day – 6 hours on the road and we set up in the dark. [Note to self: setting up in the dark is hard enough; doing it with a camper trailer makes it harder; doing it without causing world war three between married partners is even harder; add to that 15 hours of driving out of the past 32 hours and it’s a wonder B and I are still married!].

While mulling over a beer later that night Brandon and I agreed no more long days. We need to slow down and take our time. We are about a week ahead of schedule so we clearly have time up our sleeve and need to enjoy our days more. That means doing more bush camps on the side of the road to break up the long days of driving (if only the roads were pretty enough to encourage us to sleep next to them!). Our next big leg is across the Gibb River Road, so we have promised to slow down, travel less each day and smell the roses, as it were.

One thing we were doing in Katherine was picking up some Clearview mirrors we had ordered earlier in our trip. They were waiting for us at AutoPro Katherine (can’t rate these guys highly enough – they ordered these mirrors for us on nothing but a promise we’d be in town some time in the next 10 days or so, and didn’t ask for a deposit or anything. That’s a $650 gamble they took and we were very grateful!

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Our new Clearview towing mirrors

In total we will have spent 6 nights in Katherine by the time we leave. It’s not that there’s huge amounts to see and do here but we really just needed a nice long break to recharge.

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The giant fig tree at the Big 4 Katherine caravan park is decorated and has a restaurant under it – just lovely 🙂

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Katherine Hot Springs – luke warm water but nice all the same

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Celebrating being back in civilisation by getting our nails done 😉

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Northern Rosellas at the campground – lovely!

We have also had the lovely surprise of meeting up with some people we know while here! Well, sort of know. Christine and Andrew and their children Ines and Linc are on the road for 6 months and set out about 3 months ahead of us. They started out travelling over to WA and were making their way east so we hoped we’d meet up at some point and we were even planning to slightly alter our itinerary to try to find them. Brandon went to school with Christine but hadn’t seen much of her since other than on Facebook. Reading Chris’s posts, I felt we had a lot in common so I was looking forward to meeting her and Andrew. We have been following their progress on their Facebook blog – 20,000-km’s in a shitbox camper trailer. It was a great joy to see them setting up in the same caravan park we were staying in two days ago 🙂

We spent the day together yesterday doing a day trip to Katherine Gorge, then up to Edith Falls for a swim. We planned to eat lunch at the Gorge but the only grassy, shady patch of land out there was home to hundreds of fruit bats! It was smelly and unattractive so we decided to have lunch at Edith Falls instead.

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Fruit bat city
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The gorge lookout
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An impressive view at the top
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The climb up to the lookout at Katherine Gorge was pretty steep but worth it!
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The climb up to the lookout at Katherine Gorge was pretty steep but worth it!

Unfortunately we didn’t get to eat lunch at Edith Falls. We had our first mechanical problem on the road between the Gorge and the falls that saw us laid up on the side of the road for an hour or so while Brandon fixed the problem. Thankfully because we were following Christine and Andrew, we had company and the kids were able to keep each other amused while they ate and waited for the car to be fixed. The fan belts had all come off and the alternator was being held on by a thread. Brandon had brought replacement belts with him thankfully and he and Andrew were able to replace them all and tighten up the alternator and we were good to go. Such handy folks! But we think this was probably caused by the thousands of kilometres of corrugations we have travelled on these past few weeks.

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Not a sight you really want to see while travelling 😦
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Linc and Ines kept Charlotte company in the shade as they waited patiently for the car to be fixed.
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Brandon trying to poke his tongue out at me while snorkeling at Edith Falls – he needed that swim after the car repairs!
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Charlotte and Brandon’s first snorkeling adventure on this trip – Edith Falls was great for that. Fish nibble your feet if you stand still long enough!

We leave Katherine tomorrow nicely refreshed and ready for our next adventure. Charlotte has had some good play time with some children her own age, we have had some nice conversation with likeminded people and we are ready to cross the border to Western Australia and start our next adventure – the Kimberley!

Nights on the road so far: 26.